Air Traffic Control issue goes to Appeals Court

With about five weeks until the announced closure date for the Air Traffic Control Tower at Sawyer International Airport – and 148 others across the country – efforts continue to keep the facility open.

The U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the issue June 5.  Nearly four dozen individual airports, the American Association of Airport Executives, the U.S. Contract Tower Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association say the continuation of the contract towers is a simple matter of safety and are asking FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to intervene in the closure process.

In an Amicus Motion and Brief filed with the Court, the group states it’s arguments as:

1 – the FAA failed to follow proper procedures to assure the safety and efficiency of any decision affecting the nation’s airspace and infrastructure.

2 – the FAA’s decision to close contract towers disproportionately impacts general aviation.

3 – the FAA’s decision may results in permanent closure of the towers or an increased cost to users.

National aviation officials say despite increasing pressure from dozens of municipal leaders and a diverse group of lawmakers asking directly for more information about its fate, the FAA’s contract tower program remains in limbo.

Budget cuts won’t force the closure of air traffic control towers at mid-size airports during overnight shifts, the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.

But the federal agency said it is still uncertain whether it will be forced this summer to close towers operated by contractors at 149 small and medium-size airports, including Sawyer.

In a separate issue, budget cuts called for by the federal sequestration forced the FAA in April to furlough air traffic controllers for one day every two weeks. The staff cuts led to air travel delays at many of the nation’s biggest airports.

In response, Congress passed a law in April, giving the FAA the authority to transfer money from other accounts to pay for staffing.

The FAA put an end to the furloughs but it is not clear whether the legislation will let the FAA keep the contract towers open this summer.

A bill passed a week ago by President Obama means the Department of Transportation has the flexibility to continue funding the contract towers which, according to recent published reports, operate at a lower cost and with a better safety record than Federal Aviation Administration controlled facilities.

84 percent of the U.S. House voted for the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 (H.R. 1765), including Upper Michigan Congressman Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls.)  The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the legislation.