By Debby Woodin
Funding to keep contract air traffic control towers like Joplin’s in business appears to be favored by Congress.
Appropriations committees in the U.S. Senate and House last week approved funding for the operations as part of the funding for federal agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the U.S. Contract Tower Association, an affiliate of the American Association of Airport Executives.
Joplin’s airport director, Steve Stockam, is a member of the AAAE policy committee.
During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., he called on Missouri’s delegation to support funding for FAA contract towers for the federal 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Without that, the Joplin tower is one of 160 in the nation earmarked for closure on Sept. 30 because of sequestration cutbacks.
The closures were scheduled because the FAA has been under a mandate to cut its budget by $637 million this fiscal year. It has targeted tower closures or air traffic controller cuts for the nation’s smaller airports, those with fewer than 150,000 flights.
A round of furloughs and closures of 149 air traffic control towers that went into effect at the end of April was halted after three days by congressional action because the lack of controllers stalled so many flights. The April cuts delayed 40,000 flights and canceled nearly 2,000 within three days.
Stockam has said that carrying out the closures of contract towers could imperil safe flying and delay or cancel even more flights than April’s slowdown. “We don’t believe the FAA has a full understanding of the impact of this decision,” Stockam said last month of the loss of flight controllers.
Joplin, as a federal cost-share air traffic control tower, owns the tower and pays for the maintenance costs. The controllers work for a company that contracts with the FAA rather than working directly for the FAA.
As a contract tower site, the city could consider taking over the FAA jobs or contracting out to a private company, Stockam said. It would cost the city $250,000 to $300,000 to solely fund the FAA tower staff, he said.
Both of Missouri’s U.S. senators, Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, and U.S. Rep. Billy Long had voiced support for continuing to fund the staff for the contract towers.
J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the Contract Tower Association, said in a statement issued by the organization that the funding bills “reaffirm the bipartisan, bicameral view that the contract tower program is a high priority and too important to be targeted for disproportionate funding cuts.”
THE HOUSE BILL allocates a minimum of $140 million in dedicated funding for contract air traffic towers, while the Senate bill dedicates $140.35 million.