By Lori Aratani
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it will delay until June 15 the closure of 149 air traffic control towers that were slated to be shut down starting Sunday.
The goal is to give communities additional time to decide whether they will assume the costs of operating the towers, the agency said.
The decision comes after a number of airports filed suit to block the shutdowns, but it is only a temporary reprieve. Communities that do not agree to pick up the costs of running the towers could still lose them.
Last month, the FAA announced that it would close 149 towers run by FAA contractors because of mandatory budget cuts known as the sequester. The towers are mostly at small airports with fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings a year.
FAA officials said the shutdowns were needed to reach the $637 million in budget cuts the agency was obligated to make under the sequester. The FAA estimates that the closures will save $30 million to $40 million. Republicans, however, questioned whether the closings were necessary, saying they thought there were other areas where cuts could be made. Contract towers were targeted in part because it is easier for the agency to shut them down and do not require the 12-month notice that is required for those staffed by FAA employees.
More than 1,000 contract air traffic controllers were expected to lose their jobs as a result of the closures.
From the very beginning, the FAA's decision drew sharp criticism from aviation groups, private pilots and affected communities. Despite assurances from FAA officials that safety would remain a priority, the groups worried that safety would be compromised if the towers were closed.
The outcry prompted FAA to delay its initial decision on which airports would lose their towers until late March. After the list finally was released March 22, airports in Washington, Indiana and Florida quickly filed a lawsuit to block the closures, contending that the FAA had not done proper studies before deciding to shut down the towers.