By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, April 5 Putting off one of the most
high-profile consequences of the broad U.S. "sequester" budget
cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday delayed
plans to close air-traffic control towers at 149 smaller
The FAA, which oversees the nation's air-traffic system,
said it would keep funding the towers until June 15 in order to
resolve legal challenges brought by airports.
"This has been a complex process and we need to get this
right," Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in a
The tower closures had prompted a fierce backlash from
industry groups and some lawmakers, who accused the Obama
administration of jeopardizing air safety in order to build
political pressure to rescind $85 billion in spending cuts,
known as the sequester, that kicked in on March 1.
The FAA must trim roughly 10 percent of its budget by the
end of the Sept. 30 fiscal year. The tower closures, which would
have started on Sunday, were part of that effort.
With the towers closed, pilots at those facilities would
have to coordinate takeoffs and landings on their own. The FAA
said the decision would not compromise safety because the
smaller airports handle only about 1 percent of commercial air
But industry officials said the FAA's decision would
inevitably create more safety risks by removing much-needed
supervisors where all sorts of aircraft, from propeller-driven
student planes to military jets, share the same airspace.
Several airports filed legal challenges arguing that the FAA
had bypassed its own safety and environmental review process.
"For us, it really is good news. We've got some time to
continue to work out the problem," said Spokane, Washington,
airport manager Larry Krauter, who was one of the first to take
Those airports will now have several months to find a
solution - either through negotiation with the FAA or through
Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran, who fought to exempt
the control towers from the sequester in March, said he would
introduce legislation next week with Connecticut Democratic
Senator Richard Blumenthal that would prevent the Transportation
Department from closing any towers.
The FAA will have to look elsewhere to find at least part of
the $45 million to $50 million in savings it would have realized
by closing the control towers this month.
About one-third of the airports that would have lost their
controllers had planned to keep them open with local funds, the
The agency must find a total of $627 million in savings from
its annual budget of about $16 billion.
The agency already plans to force most of its 47,000
employees, including traffic controllers, to take unpaid time
off. That could lead at times to flight delays of up to 90
minutes at major hubs, LaHood has warned.