The (AAAE) and its U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA) affiliate are turning to the courts to fight the ’s plan to close up to 149 contract air traffic control towers over the next month.
The organizations filed a lawsuit in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and plan to seek a stay to block the closures, set to begin April 7.
The action joins those of a growing number of local communities that also have filed lawsuits against the FAA’s plan to shutter the towers as part of its effort to meet sequestration requirements for budget cuts. More than a half dozen communities—from Spokane, Wash., to Ohio State University—have filed separate suits, calling the action unjustified.
Those suits have been consolidated by a multi-district panel into a larger case being heard by the 9th Circuit Court Of Appeals in California. Ken Quinn, who represents AAAE/USCTA, says it still is unclear whether the associations’ case will be combined with the others.
“It’s unfortunate that our efforts to reason with the FAA to keep contract towers open and operational have fallen on deaf ears,” says Spencer Dickerson, president of meetings and international for AAAE and executive director of USCTA. “Contract towers have long been an integral part of the FAA’s system of managing the nation’s complex airspace, and the decision to shutter these critical air traffic control facilities on such an unprecedented and wide-scale basis raises serious concerns about safety—both at the local level and throughout the aviation system.”
The AAAE/USCTA lawsuit follows a direct appeal from the associations for the FAA to halt the action. The associations on April 2 filed an “emergency request for administrative stay” with the FAA, warning that absent action, they would turn to the court of appeals. The request is a necessary legal step the associations must take before they can request a stay from the courts.
“No justifiable reason exists to single out the contract tower program and make it the [Obama] administration’s poster child for sequestration cuts,” Quinn, a former FAA chief counsel and partner at Pillsbury Winthrop, says in the April 2 emergency request sent to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “Nor should such fundamental changes occur without proper notice, comment and analyses.”
The associations maintain that the action is “arbitrary and capricious” in violation of the FAA’s own regulations, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The FAA failed to provide a reasoned analysis of why it chose contract towers versus other areas in its budget, Quinn says in the emergency request. The agency also has not fully provided reasoning on why certain towers were selected over others. “The FAA has failed to fundamentally explain its rationale and act in accordance with the APA,” he says.
The associations also question whether the FAA undertook an environmental assessment in accordance with NEPA. “Closing ATC towers likely will shift noise and air quality over areas not impacted previously,” Quinn says.
He also notes that the action has federalism implications “by forcing states/localities to assume the costs for managing critical aspects of the federal airspace system, while imposing—in effect—a series of unfunded mandates.” Affected communities, he says, are essentially forced to assume the FAA’s responsibilities for the safe operation of the airspace.
“The FAA’s proposed action will cause significant harm to the AAAE/USCTA’s members,” Quinn says. “Several of these airports have mainline commercial service that depends on contract towers for passenger operations. Communities without commercial service lose vital economic and transportation links to the national and international marketplace. They lose economic revenue from tourism and visitors.”
A number of communities and at least one state have explored their own temporary funding to keep towers operating. “There is a strong feeling in the local communities that if FAA is going to take a backseat on safety, they will need to take [over] that responsibility, so they are looking at all options,” Dickerson says. But these communities continue to believe the tower operations are a federal responsibility, he adds.
Dickerson stresses that he believes the FAA “still could fix it” and find other places to cut its budget that would free funding to maintain the towers.