Florida Airport Seeks Court Order Blocking Tower Closing

A town near Daytona Beach, Florida, sought a court order blocking closure of the local airport’s air traffic control tower, which is losing funding April 14 as part of government-wide spending cuts.

Ormond Beach, with about 38,000 residents and a general aviation airport, is among at least seven cities or airport authorities across the U.S. that have sued the Federal Aviation Administration over plans to shut control towers, or ATCTs.

“The presence of an on-site ATCT is the most critical factor in preventing on-airport and mid-air collisions,” the town said in its filing yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco. “The elimination of the towers will cause immediate safety hazards that FAA failed to address.”

Nationwide, 149 small and mid-sized airports with fewer than 150,000 annual takeoffs or landings, including those serving Ohio State University, the headquarters of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Illinois and visitors to Glacier National Park in Montana, will lose their control towers starting April 7. The shutdowns were ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration as it grappled with the need to trim $637 million from its $16 billion budget. All of the towers slated for closing are operated by contractors while facilities at larger airports are staffed by FAA employees.

April 12 Ruling

Ormond Beach asked the appeals court to rule on its emergency request by April 12.

Planes can continue to use airports without working control towers under FAA procedures. Instead of being guided by controllers, pilots radio one another to manage takeoffs and landings.

The FAA said in an April 2 letter there will be no safety risk because the Ormond Beach tower is already closed at night and there will be no safety difference if it is gone during the day too.

The airport has the fourth-busiest contract tower in the country during daytime hours and 80 percent of traffic is student pilots, Ormond Beach responded in its filing.

“People make mistakes, especially when they are learning,” the town said. “FAA needs to account for the consequences and minimize them. It did not here.”

Direct Challenges

Six cases filed as direct challenges to an agency ruling in federal appeals courts in Washington and California yesterday were consolidated by a judicial panel that oversees multi-district litigation and transferred to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco for review.

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers are trying to keep up the pressure to keep the towers open. Next week, senators led by Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut will introduce legislation that will prohibit the Department of Transportation from closing any air traffic control towers, said Garrette Silverman, a spokeswoman for Moran. The measure also would require the DOT to resume operations at the 24 towers slated to close on April 7.

Last month, 27 senators led by Moran failed to attach language to a stopgap spending measure that would have blocked funding cuts to 179 towers operated by FAA contractors that will be affected by the across-the-board cuts. Senate leaders in both parties didn’t allow a vote on Moran’s amendment before the Senate approved the measure, which ended the 2013 budget fight while locking in $85 billion in automatic cuts throughout the government.

The Florida case is City of Ormond Beach v. Huerta, 13-71178, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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