March 19, 2013
Credit: Architect of the Capitol
The fate of three-quarters of the contract tower program remains uncertain after Senate leaders late March 18 blocked Sen. Jerry Moran’s (R-Kan.) amendment from coming up for a vote. The measure, which Moran had hoped to amend to the continuing resolution (CR) short-term government-wide spending bill (H.R.933), would have limited the cuts FAA could make to the program, but give FAA more funding flexibility to help pay for the program. Supporters believed that if the amendment had come up for a vote, it would have passed. In fact, by March 18, nearly one-quarter of the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, had signed on as co-sponsors.
But the Senate, grappling with about 100 amendments offered to the CR, voted late March 18 to cut off debate on nearly all the amendments, including Moran’s.
The American Association of Airport Executives and U.S. Contract Tower Association look at yesterday’s actions as a significant setback, but are exploring options to try to prevent the dismantling of the contract tower program.
Moran, calling the move to shutter most of the towers in the program “a dangerous game to play” that is jeopardizing safety, urged his colleagues to work with him to move the amendment.
“The idea we would put at risk an air traffic control tower program which is so important to the flying and traveling public is amazing to me,” Moran told colleagues in a floor statement. “I have been trying to fathom why the Department of Transportation would, in a sense, single out this program. It is hard for me to fathom a good answer to that question.”
FAA plans to close up to 248 towers–-or roughly half of the nations’ air traffic control towers-–-as part of its plan to trim $623 million from the remainder of its fiscal 2013 budget under mandatory sequestration cuts. Of those towers, 189 are part of the contract tower program, and as many as 170 could close April 7. FAA is considering exemptions and plans to announce the final list March 22.
The agency is absorbing 60% of DOT’s sequestration cut, even though it accounts for only 20% of the overall budget. Sequestration rules were written in a manner that cordons off large portions of DOT’s budget, including FAA’s, from the mandatory cuts. The net result is that the reductions primarily target FAA’s operations budget.
But sequestration rules also call for the cuts to be evenly spread, which amounts to about 5% in most areas, except the contract tower program, which is slated to lose 75%. FAA can do this because the program is budgeted outside of normal “line items,” industry sources explain.
“It is not that I think that the sequestration and the 5% cut in [the contract tower] program could not be handled by the Department of Transportation, but that is not what the Department of Transportation is doing. What the Department of Transportation is doing is eliminating the program, reducing the spending in this program by 75%,” Moran told colleagues. He adds his amendment actually would cut the program’s spending by 5%, the same amount as other programs under sequestration.