WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has assured lawmakers the Obama administration will prevent the closure of 149 small airport towers as well as end furloughs of air-traffic controllers nationwide as a result of legislation passed by Congress, according to officials involved in negotiations on the bill.
The disclosure came as senators sought signatures on a letter to LaHood saying that that their support of the legislation "was based on the understanding that the contract towers would be fully funded."
In all, 149 towers are ticketed for possible closure beginning June 15 as the FAA carries out its share of the $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that took effect in March at numerous federal agencies.
The letter said the towers, which are staffed by employees under contract to the FAA, are a "vital public safety and economic development asset for dozens of communities - many of them rural - in every corner of the country." It was circulated by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
The developments coincided with congressional passage during the day of a follow-up bill that fixed a stenographic error in legislation that cleared late last week. It was designed to give LaHood flexibility to shift up to $253 million among various accounts to "prevent reduced operations and staffing of the FAA," but the original measure lacked the letter "s" on the word "accounts."
President Obama is expected to sign the bill quickly.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, said he met with LaHood on Thursday and spoke with him again the following day about the legislation.
"I think his expectation is there is enough money and enough flexibility for him to" keep the towers open and end the furloughs of FAA employees, the South Dakotan said in a telephone interview.
"I would expect him to address that based on the discussions that took place."
Tucson's Ryan Airfield was on the list regulators released in early March of smaller airports that faced possible tower closures because of federal sequestration cuts.
The Tucson Airport Authority had sent letters to the FAA and Arizona's congressional delegation, supporting Ryan's tower operation. Even if the control tower had closed, Ryan Airfield would have remained open for flight operations coordinated via radio by pilots, which is how operations are conducted at night when the tower isn't staffed.
- Arizona Daily Star