is reversing course on its plan to end federal funding for 149 contract towers on June 15. The decision follows the passage late last month of The Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 (RFDA), which provides FAA the ability to shift $253 million in funds to cover operations.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday announced that the funding in RFDA provided enough flexibility for FAA to transfer money from other accounts to cover tower funding through the remainder of the fiscal year, in addition to ending employee furloughs.also says the funding will help restore “support of infrastructure” and delays in NextGen programs.
The move drew praise from industry leaders and lawmakers alike. “It’s been a long fight ... but in the end common sense prevailed over politics,” says Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)
“The broad coalition of communities, airports, air traffic controllers, aviation system users, and members of Congress that has emerged in recent months united in the fight to keep contract towers open is a testament to the important role these facilities play in enhancing the safety and efficiency of the nation’s aviation system,” adds Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA).
FAA in March had announced it would eliminate funding for 149 contract towers – or about 60% of the contract tower program – as part of its efforts to cut $600 million from its fiscal 2013 budget as required by sequestration.
The agency originally planned to end funding in phases over April and early May, but delayed that until June 15 as it faced increased pressure from Capitol Hill and a growing number of lawsuits filed to keep the towers open.
FAA had also implemented a number of other sequestration-related cuts, including slowing preventative maintenance on navigation aids, and, for a short time, imposing rolling furloughs of its 47,000 employees. The furloughs, which began April 21, caused numerous delays in the air traffic control system, spurring Congress to adopt the RFDA to provide FAA the ability to take money from the Airport Improvement Program – which was unaffected by sequestration – to end the furloughs.
The day after Congress passed RFDA, FAA announced it would end the furloughs. The funding flexibility in the bill was also believed to have been intended to cover tower costs. But the agency and DOT held off on an announcement, with a DOT spokesperson saying officials were reviewing the bill.
This led to even further pressure on Capitol Hill for FAA to continue tower funding. The bill does not specifically mandate that FAA exercise the funding flexibility that the act provides, and also does not direct the agency on how to use the funds. But legislators stressed that Congress clearly intended that the FAA use a portion of the $253 million to preserve the contract tower program.
“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,” says a letter signed by 41 senators, which was sent to LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
The Senate letter, spearheaded by Sens. Moran and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), notes that congressional support for the bill was based on the understanding that the towers could be fully funded. “Anything short of ending both the furloughs and contract tower closures would ignore the flexibility outlined in [the bill],” the senators say.
A similar letter was sent from the House, signed by 83 members. “The safety and efficiency of our skies have been put at risk and it was incumbent upon the Congress to direct the Secretary of Transportation to use unobligated balances of the Airport Improvement Program account to prevent the closure of 149 contract air traffic control towers and halt the furloughs of air traffic controllers,” the House letter says.
Separately, 70 mayors appealed to the FAA in their own joint letter, focused on the effects the decision to pull funding from the towers could have on their local communities. “The closure of these towers will negatively impact jobs and the economy within our communities. Our airports and the aircraft and businesses that rely upon them are a major economic driver,” the mayors say. “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.”
Along with the letter-writing campaign, dozens of municipalities had joined in a lawsuit spearheaded by the City of Spokane, Wash., in an effort to halt the FAA’s plan to drop funding for the contract towers on June 15. The(AAAE) and USCTA have been suing as well. The various parties filed briefs, and if the lawsuits continue, FAA’s responses are due next week and oral arguments are scheduled June 5.
The briefs argue that FAA moved to eliminate funding for the towers without conducting proper environmental and safety assessments in violation of federal law. The suits are before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in California.
A USCTA/AAAE brief calls the FAA’s action to end tower funding “arbitrary, capricious ... in excess of statutory jurisdiction,” and argues that the FAA performed only a cursory review before making its decision, ignored safety and efficiency concerns and failed to provide any reasoned analysis.
The joint brief filed by Spokane on behalf of numerous local authorities echoes many of the same arguments. Records show that most analysis of the FAA decision came after the agency decided to revoke tower funding, the groups contend in their brief. “The pre-decisional record fails to show that FAA prioritized air safety in deciding to close the contract towers. This is a textbook case of arbitrary agency action,” the groups say.