Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Airport tower operation still threatened

Additional FAA money doesn’t guarantee funding

Express Staff Writer

The air traffic control tower at Friedman Memorial Airport could still be closed later this year, despite a new bill passed by Congress intended to keep towers fully operational across the country.

    Despite passage in Congress last week of legislation allowing the Federal Aviation Administration to spend more money on air traffic control, Friedman Memorial Airport Manager Rick Baird said “nothing’s changed” regarding the status of the airport’s control tower.
    The tower was listed as one of 149 federal-contract towers that the FAA would not fund after June 15 due to widespread federal budget cuts known as “the sequester.” The agency has since offered to fund operations of the Friedman tower until July 15.
    The federal-contract towers are those not staffed by FAA employees but by private firms under contract with the agency.
    The bill passed by Congress on Friday would allow as much as $253 million to be moved from other parts of the Transportation Department to the FAA. Proponents said that should be enough to stop further furloughs and keep the air traffic control system operating through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
    The original bill, introduced by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., allowed the secretary of transportation to transfer funds into the FAA’s operations budget to prevent essential employees such as air traffic controllers from being furloughed, and directed the secretary to fully fund and continue operating the contract towers program.
    However, the contract tower language was dropped from the final bill, leaving more vague language that allows transfer of up to $253 million in funding that the secretary “determines to be necessary to prevent reduced operations and staffing of the [FAA] during fiscal year 2013 to ensure a safe and efficient air transportation system.”
    Baird said that without language specifically mandating that the federal-contract towers remain open, the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority isn’t counting on anything.
    “Clearly the money’s there to fix the sequester cuts, but it’s up to the FAA how it will be implemented,” he said. “We’re hoping the FAA will recognize how important these towers are and will continue to fund them. But we’re not leaving anything to chance.”
    In early April, the Airport Authority directed Baird to look into how to fund the tower through the summer. He estimated that funding the tower through the busy season to the end of the fiscal year at the end of September could cost the airport $200,000, all of which would come from the airport’s operational reserves, which are not derived from tax revenues.
    On Friday, Baird said that effort is still under way.
    “We’re proceeding like we’re going to have to fund it on our own for a while,” he said.
    FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said early last week that the furlough of air traffic controllers—a move that led to the delay of about 893 flights last Wednesday alone—would save the FAA $220 million and that closure of the contract towers would save an additional $25 million.
    A news release from the American Association of Airport Executives states that House leadership said the bill “may allow [Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood] to restore the FAA contract towers that were cut as part of the effort to reduce controller furloughs.”
    Based on numbers alone, this would appear to be true: the $253 million made available by the recently passed bill would be enough to cover the estimated $245 million needed to restore all air traffic control systems. However, the FAA underwent a total of $637 million in cuts, most of which were for other programs.    
    Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said during debate on Friday morning that the legislation would allow the FAA to keep towers open beyond June 15, which was the most recent date that small air traffic control towers were set to lose funding.
    The Associated Press reported on Saturday that the bill would bring the air traffic control system back to “normal operations,” and the FAA told the Associated Press that all employee furloughs were suspended as of Sunday.
    The FAA had reduced the work schedules of nearly 47,000 employees by one day every two weeks, amounting to about a 10 percent cut in hours and pay. The furloughs resulted in flight delays and cancellations early last week, causing Republicans to accuse the Obama administration of forcing furloughs to raise pressure on Congress to roll back budget cuts.
    But Obama Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday the FAA budget bill did not go far enough to fix the sequester’s broader impacts.
    “Ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester’s mindless, across-the-board cuts,” he said.
    A FAA spokesman said Monday that he could not comment on how the agency would spend the money until the bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
    ABC News reported on Monday that a spelling error—a missing letter “s”—is holding up the signature. The President was expected to sign the bill when the error has been corrected on Tuesday.

Greg Moore:

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