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FAA delays closing of airport control towers

  • This photo taken March 22, 2013 shows a Cessna aircraft parked near by the air traffic control tower at the Collin County Regional Airport at McKinney, in McKinney, Texas.(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

WASHINGTON — The closings of control towers at 149 small airports, due to begin this weekend because of government-wide spending cuts, are being delayed until June 15, federal regulators announced Friday.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it needs more time to deal with legal challenges to the closures.

Also, about 50 airport authorities and other "stakeholders" have indicated they want to fund the operations of the towers themselves rather than see them shut down, and more time will be needed to work out those plans, the agency said in a statement.

The first 24 tower closures were scheduled to begin Sunday, with the rest coming over the next few weeks. Obama administration officials have said the closures are necessary to accomplish government-wide automatic spending cuts required by Congress.

Despite the delay, the FAA said all 149 of the airport towers, which are operated by private contractors for the agency, will be shut down or turned over to local authorities on June 15. The new schedule is to implement the shutdowns at once, rather than a gradual phase-in as had been planned.

The U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate contract towers, has challenged the closures in federal court. "The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts)," said the group's director, J. Spencer Dickerson. "We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat."

Federal officials have insisted that the closures wouldn't affect safety. And there is evidence that with improving safety, some of the closures would make economic sense.

It turns out that the FAA has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating many of the control towers, even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.

Had the FAA used more current data, it's probable that some low-traffic airport towers operated by private contractors would no longer have met the agency's criteria for funding, industry officials say. But the FAA has long been under pressure from members of Congress to open new towers at airports in their states, not to close them.

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