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Uncertainties remain about airport tower funds

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

There seems to be some confusion regarding legislation from the U.S. House of Representatives and signed by President Barack Obama that would fund the operations of air traffic control towers.

According to a statement from the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, the bill would stop the closures of Arkansas air traffic control towers by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"The FAA now has the funds to keep the towers in Arkansas open," said Caroline Rabbitt, Cotton's communications director in Washington.

But some local airport directors openly shared opinions that differed from Cotton's assessment.

Fort Smith Regional Airport Director John Parker said while it was true that FAA-operated control towers, such as those in Fort Smith and Little Rock, would see their furloughs ended, the same was not true at smaller airports that rely on contracted controllers.

"The contract towers in the state ... four of those locations were scheduled closures originally but they have been fully funded through June," Parker said. The towers he spoke of were Drake Field in Fayetteville as well as airports in Rogers, Springdale and Texarkana.

Terry Gulley, director of transportation services for the city of Fayetteville, echoed Parkers statements regarding contracted towers, such as Drake Field's.

"We're still waiting to hear if that will include the tower money for the contract towers to remain open," he said. "We haven't been given official word."

According to Gulley, funding for contracted towers scheduled for closure only runs through June 15.

Kelly Johnson, airport director at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, said while XNA's contractor-operated control tower was not on the closure list, the airport is pushing for full funding of contractor control towers at the smaller airports surrounding XNA.

"We think it's incumbent just from a safety perspective to keep all of these towers operational," she said.

To prove how serious Johnson has taken the issue, the American Association of Airport Executives, where she serves as first past chairwoman, has filed suit against the FAA in an attempt to keep the group from closing or cutting operations at air traffic control towers.

"They (airports and communities) pushed all that back," she said. "In all, 45 lawsuits (have been) filed against the FAA on this issue. And a lot of independent airports have filed lawsuits."

In order to even keep the FAA control towers funded, in addition to the contract towers that will be operational through June, the legislation passed allowed the FAA to take money from an airport improvement program, something Johnson called "unprecedented."

"It's the first time in the FAA's history that they have moved capital money to fund any kind of operational expense," she said. "It's good for the public to keep these controllers at work, but down the road when us airports need that money for improvements, that money will not be available."

The money, Johnson said, was not set aside for any one particular project, instead calling it discretionary.

"It's a slippery slope," she said, reiterating that the money will be needed at some point down the future.

In fact, Johnson said the money is supposed to be used for projects of "national importance."

And while funding for FAA towers has been provided through the end of this year, Gulley said the lack of a funding measure has put Fayetteville in a tight spot. Recently, the city council set aside a little less than $200,000 to fund Drake Field's control tower through the end of the year. The funds, Gulley said, came from the city's general fund.

Even though the extension through June 15 has kept the city from spending that money to keep the tower open, if no resolution is found, the city will expend the majority of that to keep the tower open 12 hours per day and will need to find the money again in the following year's budget.

"It costs a little more than $20,000 per month to run that tower and keep it open," he said, adding that he hopes a clear answer is given to Fayetteville and other cities seeking funding in order for their contracted towers to stay open.

Also, while the temporary furlough of air traffic controllers may have caused delays at some of the nation's busiest airports, Parker said in Fort Smith and other regional airports, no impact was felt.

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Regardless, Johnson said the furloughs and the impending closure of the contracted control towers should not have happened.

"We saw what happened - it backed up the system, causing misconnects that cost no telling how much money," she said. "It disrupted commerce for the entire country for a political statement and we just think that's wrongheaded."

Cotton has sponsored H.R. 1432, titled the "Air Traffic Control Tower Funding Restoration Act," which it has been referred to the House Committee on Appropriations.

Asked for comment, Rabbitt, Cotton's spokeswoman, gave the following statement after stating that towers in Arkansas would remain open since, she said, the FAA now had the funding: "As far as a comment I am going to forward you the statement we put out after passage."

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Comments

Back when we were ahead of where we are now..

..a budget shortfall meant the things to be cut out were the least needed rather than the most important items. This is a new twist.