Airport Tower Overnight Shifts Retained, U.S. FAA Says

U.S. aviation regulators said they will keep 72 air-traffic control facilities open during overnight hours, reversing a plan prompted by across-the-board budget cuts.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in an e-mail statement today it won’t shutter the towers “at this time.”

The FAA acted after Congress passed legislation April 26 giving the agency authority to transfer funds within its budget to end air-traffic controller furloughs that caused thousands of flight delays. The agency ended furloughs the next day.

“We applaud FAA for having listened to airports’ calls to end plans to close 72 FAA facilities for overnight operations,” Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, a Washington-based trade group, said in an e-mailed statement.

The FAA hasn’t said whether it still intends to stop funding 149 airport towers operated by contractors at small and mid-sized airports. The FAA earlier said it would cease paying for the towers June 15 in the cuts known as sequestration.

While the law’s language doesn’t address the towers, 124 members of the House and Senate wrote FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and his boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, on May 2, saying their intent was that the towers stay open.

The FAA has to cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget by Sept. 30.

Airline Flights

The list of facilities FAA said today would remain staffed around-the-clock included some with thriving commercial business, such as Chicago’s Midway International, Sacramento International in California and Fairbanks International in Alaska.

“I am happy that the FAA finally has come to its senses, but leaving the airport employees and Midway neighbors in limbo this long was unacceptable and no way to run a major metropolitan airport,” Representative Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat, said in a press release.

“I believe closing the control tower at Midway for any length of time undoubtedly would have had a negative ripple effect on air travel throughout the country,” Lipinski said.

The facilities, 70 airport towers and two radar rooms, were selected because they had low traffic levels during midnight shifts.

Of the 72 facilities slated to close for some period of time, 54 didn’t have enough flights to justify 24-hour air-traffic service late at night, according to an FAA analysis obtained by Bloomberg.

Lawmaker Intervention

Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia, didn’t have a single period during the day or night when it averaged more than four flights per hour, according to FAA documents. The airport’s tower is open 24 hours a day, according to FAA.

Fewer than four flights an hour for any five-hour stretch justifies closing a tower during those times, according to FAA’s guidance on air-traffic staffing.

The agency has had difficulty closing air-traffic facilities, even after steep drops in traffic at some airports, according to public records and 10 former FAA officials interviewed by Bloomberg.

Members of Congress from both parties intervened at least 26 times with the FAA from 2010 through May 2012 on air-traffic staffing or the location of facilities, according to public records.

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