FAA will keep control towers open for now at smaller airports

The Associated PressMay 10, 2013 

The Federal Aviation Administration will keep open for now the 149 control towers at small airports that were slated to close as the result of governmentwide automatic spending cuts imposed by Congress, the Transportation Department said Friday.

The towers, which are operated by contractors for the FAA at low-traffic airports, had been scheduled to close June 15. They will now remain open at least through Sept. 30, the end of the federal budget year, the department said in a statement.

A bill hastily passed by Congress last month to end air traffic controller furloughs also makes enough money available to keep the towers open, the statement said. The bill gave the FAA authority to shift $253 million from accounts with unspent funds to keep controllers on the job. The furloughs at all FAA-operated airport towers and air traffic control facilities caused widespread flight delays across the country for nearly a week before Congress stepped in.

Among the towers saved from closure by Friday’s FAA announcement were five in Washington state, including three in the South Sound: Tacoma Narrows Airport, Olympia Regional Airport and Renton Municipal Airport.

Two other Washington airports also dodged the closure: Spokane’s Felts Field and Yakima Air Terminal.

“We’re delighted to hear of the decision,” said Pierce County Airports and Ferries administrator Deb Wallace. “Especially at our peak summer season, having an operating tower will add a critical measure of safety.”

Pierce County owns and operates Tacoma Narrows Airport.

The airport administrator said she will continue to explore alternate sources of funding to keep the airport’s tower operating beyond the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year.

“Of course our first choice would be to have the FAA continue to provide the funding,” she said. “But we’re still looking at alternate options to maintain services. Our airport operates on a shoestring, so we’re looking at private sponsorships to help pay the costs.”

FAA officials have previously said they needed at least $200 million to eliminate the need for furloughs. The bill didn’t require the FAA to spend the remaining funds on keeping towers at small airports open, but lawmakers said they anticipated the agency would use the money that way.

The FAA will also put $10 million toward reducing cuts and delays in its move from a radar-based air traffic control system to one based on satellite navigation, the statement said. Another $11 million will go to “partially restore the support of infrastructure in the national airspace system,” the statement said.

While the decision gives the small airports a temporary reprieve, FAA officials will still be under pressure to further cut spending in next year’s budget.

The FAA’s initial decision to close the airport towers set off an intense lobbying campaign to keep them open by airport operators, the communities where the airports are located and members of Congress with an airport in their district or state. Several lawmakers and the trade association that represents contractors who operate the towers claimed victory after Friday’s announcement.

“The broad coalition of communities, airports, air traffic controllers, aviation system users and members of Congress that has emerged in recent months united in the fight to keep contract towers open is a testament to the important role these facilities play in enhancing the safety and efficiency of the nation’s aviation system,” J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, said.

The association and airport operators in several states, including Florida, Illinois and Washington, had filed lawsuits with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit seeking to halt the closures. The suits contend that the closures violated a federal law meant to ensure major changes at airports do not erode safety. The suits also said the closures unfairly targeted the program for an outsized share of the more than $600 million the agency is required to trim from its budget by the end of September.

FAA officials pointed out that eliminating federal funding to pay for air traffic controllers would not have forced the airports to close. Of the nation’s 5,000 public airports, only about 10 percent have control towers. Those without towers generally have relatively few flights, and pilots coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves.

Airport towers are prized by local communities as economic boosts, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights to airports where there are no on-site air traffic controllers. Likewise, businesses may hesitate to locate in communities where there is no scheduled air service or where the local airport isn’t staffed by controllers.

The FAA began paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average annual cost of more than $500,000 each.

Critics have questioned whether the program is still needed. The FAA has acknowledged using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating many of the control towers, even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.

In addition to keeping the contractor-operated towers open, the FAA said earlier this week that it intends to continue to staff control towers at 72 busier airports overnight. The agency had initially planned to eliminate midnight shifts of controllers at those airports to save money.

Staff writer John Gillie contributed to this report.

The News Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service