Maryland’s U.S. senators are confident that an assurance this week from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood will mean that the 149 small airport control towers — including one at Frederick Municipal Airport — will remain open for the rest of this federal fiscal year.
Congress passed a bill last week that allows the Federal Aviation Administration, which falls under LaHood, to transfer funding from airport improvements and other areas to keep from furloughing air-traffic controllers at major airports.
After the automatic sequester cuts passed by Congress in a 2011 budget deal had resulted in hundreds of flight delays and cancellations, Congress acted swiftly to resolve the issue.
The bill allows LaHood to shift up to $253 million in the FAA budget to keep from furloughing the air-traffic controllers. But congressional leaders had not been certain that the smaller airport towers with controllers under contract to the FAA would remain open past an agency-imposed June 15 deadline.
But Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Baltimore and Benjamin L. Cardin (D) of Pikesville said in a joint statement Wednesday that they believe his guarantee that he now has enough funding to keep those towers in operation.
The FAA needed $200 million to avoid furloughing air-traffic controllers and $30 million to keep the 149 contract air control towers open, said Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for Cardin.
“The crisis created by furloughing air traffic controllers and the plan to close the nation’s federal ATC contract towers only served to highlight the fact that sequester is not good policy,” the senators said in the joint statement.
“It’s destructive to our economy, reducing employment when we should be stimulating it, and damaging priorities that are important to the American people. From harmful cuts in Head Start and Meals on Wheels to education programs and biomedical research, sequester is a meat-ax approach with mindless cuts that will continue to reverberate throughout our economy,” the statement said.
Calls to the FAA were not returned immediately, and no statement was issued by LaHood’s office. The cuts to the FAA budget were part of an $85 billion, across-the-board reduction in federal spending.
But Frederick Municipal Airport Manager Kevin B. Daugherty said prior to the announcement that he was “cautiously optimistic” the measure would allow the air-traffic control tower to remain open for the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The automatic sequestration cuts — which are only in effect for the current fiscal year — had originally meant the FAA would have furloughed the seven air-traffic controllers in Frederick and those at other regional airports on April 7.
“We went from April 7 to April 21 to June 15, so maybe this will get us through Sept. 30,” Daugherty said.
After an intense lobbying campaign by congressional and local lawmakers, federal transportation officials gave the Frederick Municipal Airport tower, which opened less than a year ago, a reprieve until June 15.
The postponement was granted to give Congress time to avoid the cuts and for transportation officials to study the potential economic and safety impact of the closures.
City and state officials have said closing the Frederick tower and four other regional towers in Maryland would cause economic problems for those communities, as well as create safety issues for pilots.
Congress acted after the FAA furloughs of air-traffic controllers at larger airports caused hundreds of flight delays and cancellations nationwide, which impacted some members of Congress and their traveling constituents.
Once the sequester cuts hit them, Congress acted quickly to shift funding in the FAA budget — so quickly that a Senate version of the bill passed last week had a typographical error that required them to pass the House version of the bill to correct the issue.
In the immediate aftermath of the bill’s passage, the FAA has said little about whether the bill would provide them with enough funding to avoid any furloughs for the end of the year, either at major or smaller contract airports.
After the congressional action last week, the FAA issued just a terse, two-sentence statement that the agency had suspended all employee furloughs, and flights would resume normal operations by Sunday.
There were two versions of the bill, one that included contract towers and another that did not, according to Craig Spence, vice president for operations and international affairs at the AOPA.
The measure that passed was the bill that did not include the contract towers, he said.
However, that bill had a typo that read “account” instead of “accounts” in referring to the funds that the FAA could draw upon that had to be fixed before going to President Obama for his signature, Spence said.
That offered a chance for the contract towers — which includes about 50 percent of the towers nationwide — to be included in the final version, he said.
But the Senate approved the House version of the bill Monday, fixing the wording but making no other changes, according to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Dist. 6) of Chevy Chase.
If the towers are closed, general aviation would be suffer more because it is more likely to use smaller airports with contract towers, Spence said.
Cardin, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, praised the action to alleviate the furloughs of the air-traffic controllers, but called on Congress to end all of the sequestration cuts.
“We’ve found a fix for this one problem, but it’s time for us to take broader action and make the tough decisions necessary to replace all of the sequestration cuts,” Cardin wrote in an emailed statement. “I have never supported sequestration. I always thought that was a big mistake. These are across-the-board mindless cuts that say every priority in government is the same. That’s just wrong.”
In a letter to FAA officials, Delaney had previously argued that the Frederick and Hagerstown airports should remain open based on the more than $2 million in business and the 2,500 jobs they represent.
“I have formally urged both the FAA and the Department of Transportation to continue to fund the control towers in Frederick and Hagerstown because having a strong transportation infrastructure is vital to our competitiveness and a strong economy,” Delaney said Tuesday.
In addition, federal workers and contractors have already borne the brunt of the nation’s economic downturn, Cardin said.
Five of the seven air traffic controllers in Frederick are also military veterans, Daugherty said.
“We don’t want to lose their services, and they’re quite valuable to us,” he said.