Airport waiting for FAA update
BY STEVE CLARK The Brownsville Herald | Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 10:15 pm
Despite the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to restore funding for FAA air traffic controllers’ salaries, officials at Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport and other “contract tower” airports are still holding their breath.
The Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which Congress passed late last month to give the FAA flexibility to move money around and avoid furloughs of FAA controllers, doesn’t specifically include the nation’s 149 contract towers that are slated to lose funding.
Contract tower controllers are not employees of the FAA, but rather private employees whose salaries are paid through the FAA. Brownsville is among 13 Texas airports targeted to lose FAA funding for contract controllers’ salaries and to cover the cost of leasing FAA-owned towers and equipment.
Officials at contract-tower airports are hoping pressure from Congress will convince the FAA to take action on contract towers as well.
The pressure comes in the form of separate letters sent last week to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood from both houses of Congress.
The Senate letter, co-written by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was signed by 39 senators. The House letter was co-authored by Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte and Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson and signed by 80 fellow lawmakers.
The gist of the argument is that contract towers are vital to a safe and efficient air traffic control system and, as such, deserve the same funding protections as FAA controllers — also, that the FAA now has plenty of money to restore the salaries of contract controllers as well as its own controllers.
The funding cuts to contract towers and FAA controllers alike came as a result of sequestration, which was triggered March 1 after Congress was unable to come up with budget agreement.
“By providing up to $253 million in funding authority … congressional intent is clear: FAA must prevent the slated closure of 149 contract towers by fully funding the contract tower program,” the Senate letter reads.
On April 26, the day after passage of the Senate version of the Reducing Flight Delays Act, Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, said his organization would lobby tirelessly to make sure the FAA took action on contract towers as well.
“We’re going to keep pressing the issue and keep making the case,” he said.
Larry Brown, director of aviation for the Brownsville airport, said Dickerson’s group and Airports Council International are leading the charge in terms of marketing, with contract tower airports making their voices heard as well.
“All those 149 towers are basically pushing as well,” Brown said. “We are, too.”
The Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation had offered to pay half the cost to keep the tower open — the other half to come out of the city’s general fund — through Sept. 30. The Texas Department of Transportation announced in late March that it would provide 50 percent in matching funds to help contract towers remain open.
Because of the uncertainty, the airport’s budget for the next fiscal year is up in the air, which is why Brown hopes for some clarity from the FAA soon.
“We assume they will announce it,” he said. “That’s what we’re waiting for.”
Meanwhile, the letters leave no room for doubt as to what Congress intended when it passed the Reducing Flight Delays Act, Brown said.
“I think … (the letters) will make it very clear to the FAA that Congress wants the FAA to consider what they’re saying — consider using the same approach with contract towers as with furloughs,” he said.
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