Congress, mayors seek assurances on contract towers

Uncertainty drives calls for DOT to commit

May 2, 2013

With the continued operation of 149 contract control towers still uncertain after the FAA gained congressional authorization to cancel their closings under sequestration, House and Senate members pressed their colleagues to express strong support for keeping the towers open.

Also, some 70 mayors reacted to the lingering uncertainty by releasing a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, stressing the impact of tower closings on jobs and local economies. The towers are scheduled to close after June 15.

AOPA supports the position of Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal, authors of the tower-support letter signed by 41 senators, that Congress’s intent, when providing $253 million in FAA funding authority for fiscal year 2013, was to avoid air traffic controller furloughs—and to prevent the contract tower closings. The Department of Transportation, however, has not disclosed its plans. A department spokesman told Politico that officials were “evaluating” the legislation’s details.

The senators’ letter urges LaHood and Huerta, “to ensure that in addition to ending furloughs for 47,000 FAA employees, the agency also end the planned closure of 149 contract towers. This legislation gives FAA the flexibility and funding it needs to do both.”

Doing less, they wrote, “would ignore the flexibility outlined” in the legislation. The senators added that their support “was based on the understanding that the contract towers would be fully funded” by the legislation that—at $253 million—provided funding authority “far above the amount required to prevent furloughs.”

In the House, a letter from Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) asserted that unobligated FAA funds made available by Congress “should be used to prevent the closure of the 149 contract air traffic control towers as well as halt the furloughs of our air traffic controllers.” Eighty-three representatives requested an explanation from LaHood as to what “immediate steps” will be taken to fund the towers’ continued operation.

Were assurances given?

Despite the Department of Transportation’s reticence to clarify its plans, some members of Congress were already treating tower closings as a thing of the past: Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, issued a statement that appeared to reflect an understanding that towers had been saved. Their statement praised the Obama administration “for keeping all of the 149 federal air traffic control contract towers (ATC) in the country open. This includes the five federal ATC contract towers in Maryland located in Easton, Frederick, Hagerstown, Martin and Salisbury-Ocean City.”

The impact on FAA operations demonstrated that the sequester “is not good policy,” they said.

On May 1 President Barack Obama signed the resolution titled “Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013.” The measure “provides the Secretary of Transportation with the flexibility to transfer certain funds to prevent reduced operations and staffing of the Federal Aviation Administration,” said the White House in a brief announcement.

“Senators Moran and Blumenthal have been committed to this issue of keeping the 149 contract towers open since earlier this year when the FAA announced this undertaking,” said Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs. “AOPA will continue the Congress’ unrelenting fight and continue to seek resolution to the contract tower closures. This is not an issue that is going to fade into the background in the halls of Congress.”

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.