FAA, DOT Stay Mum on Fate of Contract Towers

** Ray LaHood and Michael Huerta**

When Congress passed legislation in late April ending air traffic controller furloughs, the message to the FAA was clear: Keep the aviation system running smoothly and safely. Yet despite providing ample money for continued operation of 149 of the nation's contract control towers, the FAA and the Department of Transportation have stayed mum on whether they'll actually follow through and keep these facilities open.

Congress is partly to blame. In enacting the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 lawmakers provided enough money to put controllers back to work and keep the 149 contract towers open, yet nowhere in the bill does it say the FAA must keep the contract towers operating. The Transportation Department says it's considering the matter as a June 15 closure deadline looms.

Several airports that are slated to lose their towers have filed lawsuits. AOPA has weighed in as well, calling the FAA’s actions in a May 6 court filing, “arbitrary, capricious and fundamentally flawed [while] leaving the safety and efficiency consequences largely unknown.” The DOT, meanwhile, says it is “evaluating the details of the legislation” before making a final decision about the fate of the contract towers.

Congress gave the FAA millions in additional funding from various accounts, including the Airport Improvement Program, to cover controller furloughs and contract towers. When the DOT and FAA didn’t immediately announce whether the towers due for closure will indeed stay open, 41 senators sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta clarifying the position of lawmakers who crafted the funding bill.

“By providing up to $253 million in funding authority — far above the amount required to prevent furloughs — Congressional intent is clear: The FAA should prevent the slated closure of 149 contract towers by fully funding the contract tower program,” the letter stated.

Separately, mayors in 70 towns and cities with towers on the cutting block sent a letter of their own to the FAA. “The closure of these towers will negatively impact jobs and the economy within our communities,” they wrote. “Our airports and the aircraft and businesses that rely upon them are a major economic driver. At a time when we as a nation should be focused on creating and supporting jobs, these closures will only serve to hamper business growth.”

For the time being, it’s a waiting game as we await an official DOT position on the matter.


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