Thursday, April 25, 2013
Urging action to prevent tower closings
Last month, I cosponsored an amendment to prevent the Obama Administration from shutting down air traffic control towers across the country.
Sequestration requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to trim its budget by more than $600 million, or about 5 percent. Rather than seeking responsible cost-saving measures, the agency decided to slash funding to its Contract Tower Program – potentially putting public safety and jobs at risk.
Impact on Mississippi
The negative impact of these tower closures would be felt across Mississippi. Towers at seven airports in our state were among the 173 initially targeted for shutdown in early April. The contract towers at Golden Triangle Regional and Key Field were later removed from the list because of the services they provide to the military. The rest – at Hawkins Field, Tupelo Regional, Stennis International, Mid Delta Regional, and Olive Branch – will be forced to close on June 15 unless local governments choose to fund them or legislation is passed to prevent the action.
Ensuring Public Safety
I was disappointed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) refused to allow a vote on the bipartisan amendment I supported to replace the tower closures with unobligated FAA funds. Contract towers help airports operate efficiently, perform critical safety functions, and provide emergency response.
Without the towers, pilots would have to communicate with each other for takeoffs and landings. Uncontrolled air space could lead to weaker economic development and fewer jobs in the communities the airports serve. Companies may be less inclined to invest or do business in an area without a safe and efficient airport nearby.
It is unreasonable to reduce funding for the Contract Tower Program by a harsh 75 percent when sequestration will affect the entire FAA budget by only 5 percent. Contract towers handle approximately 28 percent of all tower operations and are much more cost-effective than their FAA-owned counterparts.
According to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, contract towers cost on average $537,000 each year to operate. A similar tower staffed by FAA employees has an annual cost of about $2 million. Despite these disparities, no sequestration-related closures are scheduled for FAA-controlled towers.
Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently introduced legislation to stop the tower closures. The Protect Our Skies Act, which I have cosponsored, would prohibit the Department of Transportation from closing any air traffic control towers through 2014. I am hopeful this bill, which is still in committee, will receive timely consideration.
My Fight for Tupelo Regional
My support for FAA’s Contract Tower Program began long before sequestration. During my time in the House of Representatives, I led the fight in committee and on the floor to fund the contract tower at Tupelo Regional, which was built in 2001.
There is no doubt that America’s skyrocketing debt demands financial responsibility and budget cuts. Getting our country back on a sound financial path will require all agencies to do more with less. But disproportionate cost savings should not needlessly harm communities across the country. Keeping air traffic control towers open and our skies safe is a priority that must be maintained.
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