FAA delaying funding cuts for air traffic control towers

Airplanes circulate through the Naples Municipal Airport on Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in Naples. 
(David Albers/ Staff)

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

Airplanes circulate through the Naples Municipal Airport on Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in Naples. (David Albers/ Staff)

Video from NBC-2

A recent barrage of litigation against the Federal Aviation Administration convinced officials this week to delay closure of air traffic control towers at 149 of the nation’s smallest airports.

Three local airports that were set to lose funding for their tower programs in the coming months will maintain their funding through June 15, according to an FAA press release. The Naples and Punta Gorda airports had filed litigation last week, hoping for a stay in the FAA’s decision.

The announcement comes at a time when critics are questioning the necessity of the program regardless of the federal cuts, citing the agency’s use of old data to determine the program’s scope across the country.

The delay will help the FAA “attempt to resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions. ... This additional time will allow the FAA to help facilitate that transition,” according to a press release sent by David Grizzle, the agency’s Chief Operating Officer.

Officials at Naples Municipal Airport, Page Field in Fort Myers and Punta Gorda Airport remain staunch in their opinions that their tower programs should continue to be paid for by the federal government and cutting funding will create financial hardship, passenger delays and possible safety concerns.

They were relieved by the FAA’s announcement.

“Well we’re happy,” said Sheila Dugan, deputy executive director for the Naples Municipal Airport. “We consider this a first-round win.”

Dugan said the delay will give Naples time to figure out how to transition away from the program. Naples was set to lose funding in May, but Dugan said a handful of other Florida airports were set to end their tower programs as early as this weekend.

“I don’t think (the FAA) expected so much legal opposition in this,” Dugan said. “I’m sure there are a lot of happy executive directors today.”

The Associated Press reported this week that the FAA has been using old data to determine which airports require the federally-funded tower programs.

In 1990, the FAA developed a complicated cost-benefit methodology for the tower program that relies on accident data from 1983 to 1986 to determine how many accidents would be averted and lives saved if an airport had controllers working onsite. The safety data have never been updated, despite marked improvements in accident rates.

Critics said if the data were recalculated now, some airports would fall below the FAA threshold for funding. Local officials disagreed with that logic.

“It doesn’t mean the towers have not been doing a very good job to reduce accidents,” said Ted Soliday, executive director for the Naples Municipal Airport.

Even if the airport could safely operate without a tower, there would be other consequences, Soliday said.

Closing towers at the Naples airport would burden Southwest Florida International Airport, which might then oversee tower control for all local airports. And the airport’s four training schools teach students who are required to log a certain number of hours practicing with tower control.

“We could probably get away with it in our slower months of the summer, but even then there would be delays and some near misses,” Soliday said.

Of the nation’s 5,000 public airports, only about 10 percent have control towers. Those without towers generally have relatively few flights, and pilots coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves.

Airport towers are prized by local communities as economic boosters, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights to airports where there are no on-site air traffic controllers.

Vicki Moreland, spokeswoman for the Lee County Port Authority, said Page Field officials believe the towers should remain open and they support the legislators taking steps to make that happen.

Page Field and the Punta Gorda airport were to lose funding for their tower programs April 21.

Next week, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are expected to introduce a bill to require the FAA to resume operations at the 24 towers scheduled for closure on Sunday and to prohibit the FAA from shutting down any more towers after that.

The U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate contract towers, has challenged the closures in federal court.

“The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts),” said the group’s director, J. Spencer Dickerson. “We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat.”

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