WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is scaling back the amount of savings it expects from closing 149 towers at small airports around the country.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for transportation Thursday that the agency expects to save $25 million from closing the towers starting June 15 until at least Sept. 30.
Earlier estimates anticipated savings of $33 million to $50 million from closing as many as 173 towers for a longer time because they won’t be staffed with air-traffic controllers.
But the FAA selected 149 towers to close and delayed the closings from starting April 7 until June 15 to resolve legal questions and meet with local officials who want to pay to keep the towers open the rest of the federal budget year.
To meet the $637 million savings target under federal spending cuts that took effect last month, Huerta said, the FAA is furloughing workers to save $200 million. It also is reducing travel, training and spending on information technology, he said.
Huerta called federal spending cuts “a very dramatic and a very blunt instrument.”
Closing the control towers sparked the greatest outcry so far. A handful of cities filed lawsuits to block them. A trade group called the Contract Tower Association filed its challenge April 4 at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Huerta said about 50 communities are considering paying for controllers to staff their towers. President Obama’s budget blueprint proposes to restore tower funding Oct. 1, but Congress must debate spending priorities for months.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned the costs of reopening towers, if funding is provided in the next budget year.
Huerta said if local communities don’t take over the costs, new controllers will have to be hired, trained and certified if funding is provided to reopen closed towers. “We’re looking at a series of bad options,” he said.
As a report in USA TODAY outlined April 5, aircraft collisions have killed an average of 30 people per year since 1982. The 871 controllers losing federal funding directed 8 million planes per year.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has proposed legislation to shift funding to keep the small towers open, asked whether airports will be less safe with closed towers.
Huerta said airports with closed towers will be less efficient, as planes must remain farther apart and pilots must talk to avoid each other. But, he said, they will still be safe.
“We are not doing anything that is not safe,” Huerta said.