June 5, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
With the 149 federal contract control towers that faced shutdowns under the FAA’s implementation of the federal budget sequester spared by Congress until the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, AOPA and other aviation organizations are working to secure the program’s funding in Fiscal Year 2014.
In a letter to leaders of the House and Senate full Appropriations committees and transportation appropriations subcommittees, the aviation groups called for Congress to provide $150 million in dedicated funding for contract towers in the Department of Transportation’s fiscal 2014 bill for FAA spending.
If sequestration returns in Fiscal Year 2014, the contract tower program should be spared the “disproportionate” cuts for which it was targeted in the current budget year, they said.
The aviation groups advocated for the contract tower program in letters to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Vice Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Murray chairs the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development and related agencies; Collins is the subcommittee’s ranking member.
The aviation groups also made the case for contract towers in letters to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) and Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), chairman and ranking member of the subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, and related agencies.
The 251 towers currently in the contract tower program “handle approximately 28 percent of all air traffic control tower (ATCT) aircraft operations in the U.S. but account for just 14 percent of FAA’s overall budget allotted to total ATCT tower operations,” they wrote. The program, often cited for its safety benefits, enjoyed “strong bipartisan support” during this spring’s budget clashes and the resulting sequestration, they said.
AOPA reported May 10 that the FAA scrapped its plan to close the 149 targeted contract towers after Congress gave the agency the flexibility to move $253 million in unobligated funds from the Airport Improvement Program to the operations account. Without that action, the towers were scheduled to close—despite several lawsuits—on June 15, a date set after the FAA abandoned an earlier plan for phased closings in April and May.
Announcement of the temporary reprieve for the contract towers was not immediately forthcoming after the budgeting flexibility was given to the agency, however. The FAA at first announced that it would recall furloughed ATC staffers, but remained mum for a time on plans for the towers.
Echoes of that uncertainty, which sparked an outcry in the aviation community, were evident in the new letters’ appeal for equitable treatment of the program in the coming fiscal year.
“The bottom line is that, absent this highly successful federal program, many local communities and smaller airports would not receive the significant safety benefits of ATC services,” the letters said.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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