The U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) and the FAA have remained silent, at least publicly, over the fate of 149 contract towers as officials assess the FAA’s new funding flexibility granted by Congress, but aviation executives are hoping to soon receive clarification. And while industry waits on this guidance, Capitol Hill and local officials have begun sending another round of letters urging the government to reverse course on plans to end funding for the towers on June 15 as part of the sequestration mandate.
In late April, Congress adopted a bill—the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013—to provide the FAA the flexibility to shift $253 million from various accounts, including the Airport Improvement Program, to cover tower operations and staff furloughs. And while the FAA immediately ended the furloughs, it has made no indication that it has changed its plans for the tower closures.
A DOT official last week maintained that the department was “evaluating the details of the final legislation” before it made a decision on the towers.
Aviation executives expected clarification on the towers’ fate would come shortly after President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on May 1. The bill does not specifically mandate that FAA exercise the funding flexibility that the act provides, and also does not direct the agency on how to use the funds. But industry leaders and legislators alike have stressed that Congress clearly intended that the FAA use a portion of the $253 million to preserve the contract tower program.
“By providing up to $253 million in funding authority—far above the amount required to prevent furloughs—Congressional intent is clear: the FAA should prevent the slated closure of 149 contract towers by fully funding the contract tower program,” says a letter signed by 41 Senators, which was sent to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
The Senate letter, spearheaded by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), notes that congressional support for the bill was based on the understanding that the towers could be fully funded. “Anything short of ending both the furloughs and contract tower closures would ignore the flexibility outlined in [the bill],” the senators say.
A similar letter was sent from the House of Representatives, carrying signatures of 83 members. “The safety and efficiency of our skies have been put at risk and it was incumbent upon the Congress to direct the Secretary of Transportation to use unobligated balances of the Airport Improvement Program account to prevent the closure of 149 contract air traffic control towers and halt the furloughs of air traffic controllers,” the House letter says.
“Maintaining service at all contract air traffic control towers is intrinsic to the authority given in this legislation to ensure a safe and efficient air transportation system, it adds, noting that the FAA must act “swiftly to utilize this authority.”
Separately, 70 mayors have appealed to the FAA in their own joint letter, focused on the effects the decision to pull funding from the towers could have on their local communities. “The closure of these towers will negatively impact jobs and the economy within our communities. Our airports and the aircraft and businesses that rely upon them are a major economic driver,” the mayors say. “At a time when we as a nation should be focused on creating and supporting jobs, these closures will only serve to hamper business growth.”
The mayors also worry that closure of the towers could hamper critical operations, such as firefighting, law enforcement and medical care.