Topic of the Week: Do You Feel Safe Flying into an Airport Without a Tower?


As the government continues to fail to do anything about the sequester cuts, the time has come to start closing control towers this weekend. Though these are mostly smaller airports, there are some with commercial service. I haven’t heard anything about airlines walking away just because the tower is closing. For example, Frontier is going to keep operating in Trenton. Does this make you nervous at all?

(Personally, I have no concerns. Airplanes operate at less busy airports without a tower all the time. They just use radio frequencies to coordinate. Close the tower at JFK? I think I’ll pass.)

25 comments on “Topic of the Week: Do You Feel Safe Flying into an Airport Without a Tower?

  1. I feel the same as you. A lot of small Canadian airports do not have towers, and I don’t feel unsafe. I will be flying into TTN next week, and my only worry is about how long TSA lines are going to be…

  2. Doesn’t bother me one bit. There have been stories of both pilots and ATCs falling asleep on the job in the past few years, and airports without towers seem to work well at the airports that serve private pilots.

    I think this whole issue is overblown. We’re not talking about 747s trying to land at DFW without an active tower, we are talking about (at most) a RJ or perhaps a 737 landing at a given airport without a tower once or twice a day…

    1. completely agree. The only airports that will be affected are the same ones that get violations because they are so quiet the controllers get bored.

      Maybe a few airports that have multiple ops at peak times will have minor squabble issues (not necessarily unsafe), but somehow I imagine the airport authority has also worked out a plan beyond the typical radio chatter.

  3. I think not. I’ve flown around Africa in a single engine Cessna; landing on grass and dirt landing strips with a malnourished cattle sitting at the end of it. I am not the least bit concerned with flying into a US airport with no one in the tower.

  4. My small airport (FLO) is scheduled to lose its ATC in a year and knowing that it was only open from 8am until 10pm and plenty of flight ops occurred outside those timeframes makes me feel better and realize ita not necessary, but was just one extra layer of safety.

  5. I feel safe flying into airports without a tower, which I do all the time as a private pilot. On the other hand, once an airport gets enough traffic, it will need a tower to keep everything safe; the reason smaller airports don’t have a tower is because they don’t have enough planes going in and out to need one.

    All of the airports that are losing their towers are ones that the FAA had already made that decision about: they had enough traffic that they needed a tower. I wouldn’t worry about an airline flight with professional pilots flying into those airports, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in incidents among private pilots at the busier airports.

    I’d also be a little worried about private pilots with marginal skills, who may have avoided some of those airports in the past because of the small added hassle of flying in and out of a towered airport, and now that they don’t have to deal with ATC are more likely to start using those airports.

  6. When I first heard towers would close I assumed they would be small airports in rural type areas. But seeing a list of some in California, I was surprised to see Fullerton airport. It may only have general aviation, but it has a lot of it and is surrounded my millions of people including nearby Disneyland.

    But when you think about it, for commercial flights unless you are using your home airport and know there isn’t a manned control tower anymore, how many other passengers are going to know that to be concerned about it.

    The better question is, who is going to be more nervous/scared, passengers on a plane whom most won’t know there is no tower personnel or people living around an airport with no tower personnel?

  7. My concerns are in line with Robert and David. We all know there is a cadre of marginally skilled pilots out there and I’m afraid the unmaned fields will be a safe haven. We are going into the spring/summer thunderstorm season and there could be incidents.
    For the life of me I do not understand how closing towers in SoCal,SoFla, Chicagoland and the northeast can be considered safe. Adding workload to an already stressed TRACON system is downright counterintuitive. Heavily congested airspace over densely populated areas….planes (that may or may not have correctly reported correct position) shooting free-range approaches and rapidly evolving weather seems like a bad idea.
    I am not saying that this will result in showers of aluminium from coast to coast. I am not saying that there are some towers that can be closed with no impact on safety. I am saying that this is a layer of safety on the cake that is being ripped away and has the POTENTIAL to end badly.

    1. As a pilot I see serious issues at the TRACON level as well. I put more thoughts at the bottom. I don’t know how it will work.

  8. Personally, I think the airports will initially be safer as all pilots will carefully follow the well established, time tested, approach procedures. These contract towers have low volume, and if the traffic increases enough to justify it, the FAA would add. In Texas, the State funded a handful of towers used by rich contributors.

  9. I have been a pilot for 45 years and earned my ticket at Flushing Field in Queens NY which abuts LGA. The vast majority of airports no not need a tower and since the majority of airports do not have nor have ever had a tower and safe flights operate in and out of them constantly, the current uproar is all smoke and mirrors to advance a political agenda. Yes, flying into and out of airports like LGA, JFK, ORD, ATL, etc with such high traffic levels and mixed approach speeds do require spacing and metering, they are more the exception rather than the rule. Lets use common sense and remember one of the basic tenets of flying: “see and be seen”. And lets educate the non flying public that, closing the tower does not close the airport

  10. A few on the list are so busy with general aviation training, I worry a bit.

    Now currently on the RJ side…RJ wants to depart, tower gives the clearance/EDCT/ground stop from the computer and calls TMU (traffic management unit) or someone at the center.

    Now the center controller will have to manage all that, which would seem to require time off his frequency and on the land line, and most centers I talk to are already pretty busy with overhead traffic. The RJ driver is on and off a local frequency during this time.

    Its not so much the landing, as the departing, that I see being an issue. But I admit, even as a pilot, I don’t know who is calling who to get me in the air, and where everyone is sitting. I would love an ATC guy to chime in.

    I do know that with a local guy in the tower, I have an advocate that understands the situation and what is going on behind the scenes and can help get me in the air.

    I don’t know how the system works exactly, but I assume going forward, the days of blowing my EDCT by 2 min because of de-ice/tug break/person got up and a local voice says, “no problem, already picked up the phone and worked it out” are long gone.

  11. Bush flying in Canada, Alaska and Africa sometimes without developed landing strips beyond a few hundred hards of cleared dirt? It happens regularly and for regular flyers in those conditions, it’s no big deal.

    More seasoned travelers still experience travel without control towers in places like Tahiti where visual separation and common radio frequencies do all the work. Tahiti, of course, is after 8 hours of flying from the US Mainland, looking for a speck of dirt big enough to handle a 747. Easter Island, I would imagine (never been) is the same.

    Flying in and out of a US airport without a tower may become more routine so long as Departure Control can sequence the traffic with overflying flights in the area. I’d be fine with it.

  12. This reminds me of a discussion that is going on in controlling automobile traffic – its often safer if everyone senses a slightly greater sense of danger, which increases their responsibility for their safety… See:

    There is another Wired article that describes an intersection in Europe (the Netherlands?) where there is no grade change between the street and the sidewalk, the guy who designed it is confident enough in its safety that he has several times walked through the intersection backwards with his eyes closed.

    This all being said, Pilots are much more professional and safety aware than your average automobile driver that needs environmental cues to get them really paying attention.

  13. Doesn’t bother me a bit. I guess it’ll make Channel 9 that much more interesting to listen to, though :)

  14. As I commented on the previous post on cuts, I flew into Los Roques (Venezuela), a remote controlled field. Quite some traffic, including 15-20 commercial flights per day (and many many non-commercial). No problem whatsoever.

    I know an A320 is a bit different than a Piper Arrow landing, but as long as the airport has advisory and people are well-informed, I don’t see a problem. It’s not like they’re going to shut down the tower at Atlanta, only on low-traffic fields. If this saves money, why not?

  15. It does concern me. I’ll bet the list will change somewhat.

    Up the road, the Lancaster, Pa. control tower is scheduled to close. 90,000 landings and takeoffs a year, operated 6a-11p, by 7 contractor controllers.

    EAS 5-flights a day, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky to cause Sun Air to cancel its Piper Chieftan flights, but lots of private pilot operations, including lots of corporate jets. There’s a neat NetJet-like base of jets there who are pretty heavy into flying donated-transplant body parts around the country.

    Gotta be alert for lots of geese and other migrating birds at all levels. Sort of right there on a major migration flyway, with lots of good local Pennsylvania Dutch farm food to dine on. Careful to check for stray horses from the Amish farms that abut the runways on just about every side.

    The area is represented by a congressman who is one of the most conservative Republicans around…”I think they should be able to find savings in some other areas to keep the tower open.”

    The Frederick and Hagerstown, Maryland towers are on the list, too. They flank Camp David on opposite sides and one wonders if they might not be taken off the list, too. But, who knows?

  16. I think in general, passenger and pilot alike will not see this is a major problem. I personally think this is a good thing we need to start making cuts. Although I do agree with my fellow pilots that things will get interesting at a few of these (Provo and Odgen Utah I’m looking at you). But in the end if things aren’t right there is always a go around which is a fun ride in an airliner. Provo, at least before the tower had quite a few problems with this. It was pretty funny tring to watch a Katana try to hurry an approach in front of a chartered 737. I saw the Katana in the flare with the 737 200ft above it going around. I wish I would have had a camera. It was quite the Kodak moment.

  17. I worked for Frontier in their Denver corporate offices and can tell you first hand, it is not a well run airline. From the VPs right on down, Frontier does attract nor develop the best qualified people for the job. As we used to say in the south, “not the sharpest knife in the drawer” …. It doesn’t surprise me that they decided to continue to fly…but not with me on board.

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