April 6 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Aviation Administration delayed the closing of 149 U.S. airport control towers that was slated to begin as soon as tomorrow under mandatory budget cuts.
The agency extended the deadline for shuttering the towers until June 15 because it needs additional time to resolve legal challenges, the FAA said in a statement yesterday. The move will also give the agency more time to adjust flight routes and procedures, according to the statement.
“This has been a complex process and we need to get this right,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the statement. “We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”
The FAA must cut $637 million under automatic cuts known as sequestration by Sept. 30, according to the statement. The agency had planned to stop funding more than half of the 251 towers operated for the FAA by contractors. The towers are located at smaller airports that cater to private flights.
Delaying the closings may force the agency to make cuts elsewhere in its $16 billion budget. The shutdowns had been expected to yield $30 million to $40 million in savings by Sept. 30. The agency statement didn’t address other cuts.
The agency’s decision came after the town of Ormond Beach, Florida, sought a court order blocking the closing of the local airport’s control tower.
Ormond Beach is among at least seven cities or airport authorities across the U.S. that have sued the FAA over plans to shut control towers.
The FAA delay “is not a solution,” Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said in a statement posted on his website.
Moran and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut plan to introduce legislation next week that would prohibit the U.S. from closing any air-traffic control towers, including those operated by the FAA.
“Closing control towers is equivalent to removing stop lights and stop signs from our roads,” Moran said.
The Contract Tower Association, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group representing the towers, applauded the decision in a statement as a “welcome development.”
“We remain hopeful that DOT and FAA will find a way forward to deal with budget realities in a way that doesn’t disproportionately target contract towers,” Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the group, said in the statement.
The FAA had a conference call April 2 with airports and the companies that run the towers and was unable to answer many questions about the shutdown, Dickerson said in an April 3 interview.
“The level of frustration in getting information and dealing with the FAA is extremely high,” he said.
The FAA should use the additional time before the closings to conduct an additional review of the impacts of the tower closings, Craig Fuller, president of the Frederick, Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said in an e-mailed statement.
About 50 airport authorities have told the FAA that they would pay for tower operations themselves if the agency stopped its funding, according to the agency’s statement. The delay will allow the agency to set up the transition in funding, it said in the release.
Most of the 5,000 U.S. airports operate without towers. Pilots are responsible for avoiding other planes and notifying others of their intentions with radio calls.
The FAA had said it would stop funding for 24 towers tomorrow, including Ormond Beach Municipal. The first group included towers in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Olathe, Kansas, and Kinston, North Carolina.
The towers to be shuttered were split into three groups. A second tranche was to have closed April 21 and the third May 5.
That phased approach was abandoned yesterday, the FAA said in its statement. All 149 towers will close June 15 unless local airports and other government agencies decide to pay for them, according to the statement.
The contract tower program began in the early 1980s as the FAA struggled to staff its air-traffic control system after President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking controllers in 1981, according to a March 26 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.
They are located at small- and mid-sized airports that typically cater to private flights, with smaller numbers of charter and military flights. Of those scheduled to close, 13 averaged at least one scheduled airline arrival and departure per day in 2011, according to FAA data.
While the funding for contract towers has been justified since 1990 on anticipated safety benefits, a more recent study by the FAA found no such link.
The study of more than 200 of the airports with contract towers found almost identical accident totals in the five years before towers were opened compared with the five-year span afterward.
The March 26 CRS report concluded there would be a “relatively small” reduction in safety if towers closed, based on the 1990 FAA study. Because crash rates have declined since then, the 1990 report may overstate the risks, the CRS study said.
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