The political winds that have buffeted Manhattan and scores of other communities that learned in March their airport control towers would close June 15 blew in some truly good news on Friday.
They received a reprieve when the Federal Aviation Administration said that the 149 air-traffic control towers initially scheduled to close in June would remain open through September. That was one of the results of brand new legislation to ease flight delays at major airports. Those delays resulted from the FAA’s decision to furlough air-traffic controllers as part of spending cuts mandated by the sequester. The furloughs created such havoc that Congress scrambled to pass the aptly named Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013.
That law also enabled the FAA to shuffle enough money around to continue air-traffic controller contracts for the 149 towers, one of which is at Manhattan Regional Airport, on the closing list.
Friday’s action offers no guarantees beyond Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year. But the move to keep the 149 towers open after that is gathering momentum. That’s due in part to a coalition of communities, airports, air traffic controllers and aviation system patrons and in part to bipartisan legislation pushed by Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat. Among other provisions, their bill, the Protect Our Skies Act, would prevent the Department of Transportation from closing any air-traffic-control towers through fiscal year 2014.
Sen. Moran’s office, gathering information to make the case for passage in Congress, has cited a 2012 report by the inspector general for the Department of Transportation that extols the efficiency of the contract control tower program. What’s more, in 2009, when the FAA had less money than it does even under the sequester, it had enough money to fund the contract control tower program.
Only about 10 percent of the nation’s 5,000 public airports have towers. Those towers not only bolster safety in communities like Manhattan, they also improve economic development prospects.
According to the Associated Press, the FAA began paying contractors to staff towers after President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers in 1981. The program now supports 251 towers nationwide, with the average annual cost of $500,000 each.
We’re delighted that Manhattan’s traffic control tower will be operating through September, and hope federal funding is found to keep it operating long after that. To what extent airports like Manhattan’s, with a handful of daily commercial flights in addition to local air traffic, need professionally staffed towers is a subject of debate. There’s little doubt, however, that an operating tower would make our airport even safer.