Air traffic controller Abraham O'Keeffe talks to a pilot on approach during his shift at the Easton, Md., airport while coworker John Stevens keeps an eye on the runway. / Doug Kapustin for USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The Federal Aviation Administration is moving ahead with plans to close 149 small air-traffic-control towers across the nation as part of mandated spending cuts.
"We don't have the money to keep them open," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation Tuesday. "It's a big headache for us."
The FAA on April 5 postponed the closures until June 15. LaHood said the delay was mostly so lawyers could review the decisions and give local governments a chance to find the money to keep them open.
President Obama's proposed budget for the year starting Oct. 1 would restore funding for the towers, but Congress would have to agree.
"I know the difficulty in announcing that an airport (tower) is going to close, particularly in rural America," LaHood said.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the Senate transportation committee that about 50 communities have offered to pay to keep their towers operating.
The FAA decided to close towers at the smallest airports to save $33 million toward the $637 million it must cut by Sept. 30. The first step was to close towers at airports that average fewer than 27 commercial takeoffs and landings a day.
The FAA also is still planning up to 11 days of furloughs for its 47,000 workers. Those affected will lose one day per two-week pay period from April 21 to Sept. 30.
The agency also plans to eliminate midnight shifts at 60 towers starting this summer. But LaHood said "safety will not be compromised."
A USA TODAY analysis April 5 reported that aircraft collisions have killed an average of 30 people per year since 1982. The 871 controllers losing federal funding directed 8 million planes per year.
Huerta said the FAA has reduced travel, training and technology services. He said about 10% of controllers will be cut, which could result in 90-minute delays during the busiest times at the busiest airports.
"These are a series of bad choices," Huerta said.
After a handful of cities sued to block the closures, a trade group called the Contract Tower Association filed a federal lawsuit April 4.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., asked for written justification why a tower in Nashua would close while another in Lebanon would stay open. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said FAA cuts seemed harsher than in other departments.
"You've been dealing with this in a very blunt way," Cantwell said.
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