FAA chief says tower closures unavoidable


WASHINGTON — FAA Administrator Michael Huerta gave no indication Tuesday that his agency plans to reverse course on its decision to stop 149 contract air traffic control towers after June 15, including those in Fayetteville and Texarkana.

Appearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Huerta said that ending the control tower contracts was unavoidable given the $637 million in budget cuts required under sequestration.

Republicans and Democrats on the panel took turns Tuesday voicing their displeasure with the Federal Aviation Administration plan and questioning why specific airports in their states were not spared.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., wondered if the FAA had consulted with the Department of Defense on removing the control tower personnel from either Texarkana or Fayetteville. He noted that the Air Force flies C-130s into Fayetteville and that there are 5,000 military flights in and out of Texarkana each year.

Huerta said that they asked the military branches for their list of priority airports and that all of those airports will continue to have their air traffic control towers staffed.

“I wasn’t happy with the response,” Pryor said after the hearing. “I’m going to dig a little further to see if they really did take it into consideration.”

Huerta said that losing air traffic controllers should not have an impact on safety at the small airports. All but one, he said, already operate without air traffic controllers for substantial periods of time. The impact, he said, would be on efficiency. More time is needed between take offs and landings for safety sake.

“We are not doing anything that is not safe,” he said.

Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, disagreed.

Hersman said that having staffed air traffic controllers adds a layer of safety that should not be completely overlooked. She pointed to a runway collision in Quincy, Ill., where there was a delay in emergency response because there was no one in the tower to report the accident.

“There are multiple layers of safety and when you eliminate those layers you introduce risk,” she said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., complained that FAA has not been forthcoming with the details supporting the decision to stop funding the control towers and questioned whether the public should trust that the decision is sound.

“The focus has been to maintain aviation safety and to have the minimum impact on the maximum number of passengers,” Huerta said.

The Fayetteville City Council recently decided to set aside as much as $250,000 from its reserves to keep the air traffic control tower at Drake Field operating beyond the proposed FAA closure.

Huerta said about 50 communities have expressed similar interest in picking up the cost of staffing the towers. Most have contacted FAA asking them to negotiate an orderly transition, which is one of the main reasons that FAA delayed its plan to close the towers from late March to June 15.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also expressed concerns about tower closings at Tuesday’s hearing.