Benishek & Sawyer Airport tower

Sawyer International Airport’s air traffic control tower is a federal sequester victim.

It’s one of three Michigan towers that will close and one of 149 across the country.

All of the closing towers are run by companies that subcontract with the FAA.

Congressman Dan Benishek visited Sawyer Tuesday morning to obtain more information about the tower and its importance.

Airport staff told him about Department of Defense operations at the airport and about the airport’s status as a diversionary facility in times of national crisis.

A recent U.S. Department of Transportation audit found that contract towers like Sawyer’s have a much lower number and rate of safety incidents than FAA towers do.

And they’re not only safer; they’re less expensive.

The audit also found that contract towers cost about $1.5 million less per year to operate than they’d cost if the FAA operated them.

But Sawyer Airport manager Duane DuRay says the airport can and will operate as usual without its tower.

The tower closure process will begin on April 7th, but DuRay says the FAA has not been very forthcoming with information other than that.

Five staff members will lose their jobs as a result of the closure.

On Friday, March 22, Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT) introduced a bipartisan amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution to increase funding for the FAA for fiscal years 2013 through 2023.  The amendment would make it easier to restore federal funding for air traffic control towers that will be closed beginning in the next 2 weeks.  The amendment also stipulates than an increase for FAA will not increase the deficit during the same period.  The following Senators cosponsored the amendment:  John Rockefeller(WV), Jerry Moran (KS), Christopher Murphy (CT), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Kay Hagan (NC), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Joe Manchin (WV).  Media reports state that other Senators including Senator Marie Cantwell (WA) cosponsored the amendment.

The Senate passed the amendment unanimously Saturday morning and later, in the early morning hours, passed the budget resolution.  Earlier in the week, the House passed its version of the budget resolution.

While the aviation industry says this is a welcome development, it may be a largely symbolic victory.  As a practical matter, the budget resolution establishes total spending levels, but it doesn’t determine the amount of spending for federal agencies like the FAA.  In fact, any assumption regarding discretionary spending – which is the part of the budget where the FAA is funded – is not binding.  Funding for FAA and for programs like the contract tower program will be determined through the annual appropriations process.