By Debby Woodin
Joplin’s airport manager says that failure of the federal government to stop sequestration cuts of air traffic controllers effective Sept. 30 puts airports and travelers on the verge of something “very scary.”
Steve Stockam this week attended a policy committee meeting of the U.S. Contract Tower Association in Washington, D.C.
He also called on Missouri’s senators, Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, and Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, to discuss options for trying to prevent budget sequestration cuts that would trim air traffic control jobs Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. The Federal Aviation Administration has scheduled 160 towers to close then, including Joplin’s.
An earlier round of furloughs and closures of 149 air 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 cuts are taking place 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.
The April cuts delayed 40,000 flights and canceled nearly 2,000 within three days, causing Congress to act to stop those cuts and furloughs.
“The budget is a big issue with the sequestration,” Stockam said. “If there is new budget bill before Oct. 1, we have asked for language to fund all the contract towers, which is $150 million.”
Another option would be for Congress to pass a continuing resolution to protect the towers from the cuts, Stockam said.
Complicating the problem is a mute FAA.
“One of the things so frustrating is the lack of communication we’re having with the FAA,” Stockam said. “Right now, the FAA is not speaking with us about the contract. This is a program that’s been going on for 50 years, and it’s always been a program of cooperation.
“We were stakeholders,” and sat around the table to hold discussions and resolve any issues facing the FAA. “For some reason, we’ve been totally blocked out of this process. So there is a high level of frustration and apprehension” among airport managers over this issue.
“We don’t believe the FAA has full understanding of the impact of this decision,” he said.
In April at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, where Joplin’s American Eagle flights come and go, “We were on the verge of something very, very scary for the flying public,” Stockam said. That will happen again in September, he said.
Stockam is trying to plan the airport’s budget for next year, a difficult chore while staring at the possibility of the tower closing, he said.
A last-ditch effort to protect those operations at the Joplin Regional Airport would be to see if the City Council would support the city paying for air traffic control.
That possibility could cost the city $250,000 to $300,000, Stockam said.
Blunt issued a statement saying the airport is important to travel, tourism and the economy of Southwest Missouri.
“I’ll continue working to ensure the Obama administration targets sequestration cuts in a smarter way to avoid unnecessary and irresponsible closures,” Blunt said in a statement issued by his office.
McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri said, “Claire’s priority is ensuring that these kinds of decisions are made with the safety of Missourians in mind, and in order for that to be accomplished, there will need to be closer and better communication between local communities and the FAA.”
JOPLIN, as a federal cost-share air traffic control tower, owns and pays for the maintenance costs of the tower. The controllers work for a company that contracts with the FAA rather than working directly for the FAA.