A provision in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016 that would potentially slash the Walla Walla Regional Airport’s share of the cost to operate its flight control tower flew through the Senate on Tuesday.
The provision, approved 95-3 and led by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would reform the FAA’s Contract Tower Cost Share Program. The provision, lobbied for by the Port of Walla Walla, affects just three airports nationally, but none more than Walla Walla’s, Port Commission President Mike Fredrickson said.
Under the current program, airports that contract out for air-traffic control must pay a share of the operating costs to run the towers. The cap on that amount is 20 percent of the total operating cost. The airport pays the top end of that cap to the annual tune of about $85,000, Fredrickson said. The other two airports pay less than 20 percent, he said.
He believes the local airport’s cost share would likely be lower today if a new cost benefit ratio study could be done. But that hasn’t been allowed.
Consequently, the Port at various points has considered closing the tower and operating the airport without one. Fredrickson said that discussion would be eliminated if the provision were to be accepted.
The proposal awaits approval from the House of Representatives. However, one challenge moving forward is that the current House bill does not have the provision language included.
Fredrickson said either the conference committee would need to support it or the House would need to adopt the Senate version.
Cantwell’s provision changes the current structure to allow an exemption for cost sharing at smaller airports that have at least 25,000 annual passenger boardings.
“Our regional airports are a critical economic driver for local economies,” said Cantwell, ranking member of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommitee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, in a prepared statement. “Ensuring Walla Walla (Regional) Airport can thrive helps grow small businesses and create jobs across the Valley from hotels to wineries.
The Port met with Cantwell last February to lobby for the change.