A plan to close 149 air-traffic control towers has galvanized opposition like few other moves under U.S. automatic budget cuts, uniting lawmakers with businesses, unions and an advocacy group with Harrison Ford in its corner.
The fight, involving about $40 million of this year’s $85 billion in cuts in a process known as sequestration, reflects how broadly the proposed closings cut across rural districts represented by lawmakers who, regardless of party affiliation, are elected to serve local interests. Thirty-eight of the 50 U.S. states would be affected by the closings.
“You try to shut down the towers, and you’re going to have a fight on your hands,” said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Lilly and other analysts say the tenacious response offers a glimpse of what’s to come, as the impact of sequestration affects other programs with their own strong supporters. The automatic cuts are the penalty agreed to by President Barack Obama and Congress in failed debt-reduction talks.
“It’s the most visible symbol of bad public policy kicking in,” said Jim Dyer, a Washington lobbyist and former Republican staff director of the appropriations panel, said of the towers. “And as the year goes on, it’s going to get worse.”
The towers are operated by contractors to the Federal Aviation Administration and are located mostly at small airports serving private aircraft.
They have powerful outside advocates, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick, Maryland. Its 400,000 members include Ford, the star of movies including “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the newly released “42.”
“General aviation is more than guys in corporate aircraft,” Ford, who flies his own single-engine planes and a twin-engine jet, said in an interview.
“It’s police and fire services. It’s EMS. It’s a guy flying his fish to market. It’s tractor parts getting to a rancher or a farmer. It’s a broad range of businesses that are affected.”
Ford, 70, has spoken to general-aviation caucuses in the House and Senate that have about 220 lawmaker members.
The actor has spoken at AOPA conventions and dinners, and served as a spokesman for the group’s “General Aviation Serves America” campaign. He is a member of the AOPA Foundation’s Hat in the Ring club, whose members donate at least $1,000 a year to support initiatives like pilot safety and preserving airports, according to the group’s website.
AOPA is among the biggest political donors in Washington, giving $8.4 million to candidates and parties between 1989 and 2012, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. Its donations exceed those of many large corporations, including Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and BP Plc.
It contributed $811,274 in the 2011-2012 election cycle, including $549,750 to individual candidates -- most of it in rural states like North Dakota, Mississippi and Alaska. Its top recipient was Representative John Barrow, a Georgia Democrat who chairs the House’s General Aviation Caucus. He received $10,000.
The group spent $2.9 million in 2012 on its own five-person lobbying operation, and another $280,000 to hire 18 outside lobbyists.
The FAA, responding to criticism in Congress and lawsuits by airports, delayed the closings earlier this month until June 15. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a House panel yesterday that the agency can’t forestall it any further.
“We don’t have the money to keep the towers open,” LaHood said. “We simply don’t.”
In the Senate, the effort to stop the tower closings is being led by Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who belongs to the Tea Party Caucus, which advocates for less government spending; and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. The two last week introduced legislation that would prohibit the Department of Transportation from closing any air traffic control towers for the next two fiscal years. It has 30 co-sponsors.
A House proposal would restore funding for the contractor-operated control towers by redirecting unobligated funds in the FAA’s budget to pay for their operations. It was introduced by Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Richard Hudson of North Carolina and Democrat Bruce Braley of Iowa.
Moran said in an interview he’s motivated most about concerns about passenger safety and his belief that budget cuts should be selective, not automatic.
“There’s a rural aspect to it that certainly catches my attention, but it’s more a belief in government doing its job responsibly as compared to seat of the pants,” said Moran, whose state would lose five towers under the FAA’s plan.
Opponents have portrayed the tower closings as a safety threat, even though most of the 5,000 U.S. airports operate without towers. Pilots flying into uncontrolled airports can use radio calls to communicate with each other.
“We just think it’s wrong for this administration to politicize aviation safety,” said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the Control Towers Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday that his agency chose to close the towers because less than 1 percent of commercial passengers fly at those airports and the agency wanted to limit the impact on airlines.
While a 1990 FAA study found towers enhanced safety, a more recent agency review of more than 200 airports with contract towers that examined accidents through 2011 found there was no difference in totals before and after towers were added.
The agency has few alternatives other than closing contract towers to reach its required budget cuts, said George Donohue, a former agency associate administrator who is now an engineering professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
He said the agency must provide a year’s notice to controllers at airports in larger cities under terms of its union contract.
The four committee leaders in the House and Senate with jurisdiction over transportation issues -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- have been insistent nonetheless. They sent a letter last week to LaHood and Huerta saying they’re “profoundly disappointed” the towers will close June 15.
Craig Fuller, president and chief executive officer of AOPA, said his goal of the effort is to pressure the FAA to scale down the number of towers that will close.
Despite the number of lawmakers backing the towers, their numbers may not be enough to get legislation through Congress anytime soon, he said.
“I’m hopeful the number that will be impacted will be reduced,” Fuller said.