Wednesday, April 10, 2013

FAA delays funding cut to Hailey tower

Officials still concerned about future

Express Staff Writer

The federal government plans to cut funding for operation of the air traffic control tower at Friedman Memorial Airport on June 15, about six weeks later than first announced. Photo by Willy Cook

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it would delay closing 149 air traffic control towers around the country, including the one at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, until June 15.

But an airport official said the problem of funding the airport through the busy summer months and beyond still remains.

The FAA originally announced that the air traffic control tower at Friedman Memorial Airport would lose funding on May 5 as the result of across-the-board federal budget cuts known as the sequester. 

Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird and members of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority considered filing litigation and investigated the cost of funding the tower locally—about $45,000 per month, compared with roughly $16,000 to $30,000 in litigation costs for seeking a stay of the closure.

The FAA announced the delay to give it time to “resolve multiple legal challenges to the closure decisions.”

Baird said Monday that the authority had not yet filed litigation against the FAA, but had filed a formal petition with the agency asking it to review its decision to cut funding to the tower.

“From an airport perspective, we’re elated,” he said in an interview. “[But] it still puts us on a fast track toward making a decision because it’s so close to when we get busy in the summer.”

Baird told the Blaine County commissioners on Tuesday that he would ask the Airport Authority board members whether they might want to pursue funding the tower separately from the federal contract program.

“The community needs to know what the board’s reaction to this is going to be,” he said. “Is it going to be to let the tower close after a courageous fight, or is it going to be, regardless of the fights we get in, we are not going to let our tower close?”

Baird also pointed out that if the closure decisions stand, the tower would lose funding two weeks before Fourth of July weekend, which is the start of the busy summer season. The FAA has offered to allow the airport to remain in the program for an extra month, until July 15, but at a cost of $50,000.

Baird said the extra month could give Congress time to reverse the budget cuts or find another solution for funding air traffic control towers.

“It could be significant if there is a legislative solution,” he said.

Commissioner Jacob Greenberg pointed out that other airports with towers losing funding are asking the business community to chip in or moving money from maintenance budgets in the short term to pay controllers.

Baird said he believes the airport can keep the tower open through the summer by using cash reserves. After that, he said, a more permanent solution would need to be found. 

The Airport Authority board was expected to discuss its willingness to fund the tower during its meeting on Tuesday night. The results of the meeting were not available as of press deadline.


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