By Howard Roden, Conroe Courier
Citing the need for more time to deal with legal challenges, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday it is delaying the closure of 149 airport control towers, including the one at Lone Star Executive Airport in Conroe.
Closing of the control towers was scheduled to start Sunday because of government-wide spending cuts. That action has been delayed until mid-June.
However, the Texas Transportation Commission had agreed to provide $2 million for tower operations at 14 in-state airports for 90 days, including LSEA.
Lone Star would have been reimbursed approximately $150,000 by the state to pay the salaries of the eight air traffic controllers working at the LSEA tower.
"It certainly is good news," Airport Manager Scott Smith said. "Hopefully, this will provide enough room for a legislative solution."
Obama administration officials have said the closures are necessary to accomplish automatic spending cuts required by Congress. However, U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, has been skeptical.
"I hope that the FAA's decision to delay the tower closures indicates they are ready to work with our local leaders," he said. "The FAA needs to wisely use the time until June 15 to prioritize cutting true wasteful spending rather than playing politics with a program that has a proven safety record and created real economic growth for our communities."
Lone Star Executive Airport is one of about 50 airports and other "stakeholders" that have indicated they want to fund the operations of the towers themselves rather than see them shut down. More time will be needed to work out those plans, the FAA said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Montgomery County commissioners and the Conroe City Council have remained ahead of the curve, agreeing last month to cover the tower operation from April 7 until Sept. 30 at a cost of approximately $330,000.
"It's a temporary reprieve," Smith said of the FAA's decision. "We'll have to see how things play out."
Despite the delay, the FAA said it will stop funding all 149 of the airport towers, which are operated by private contractors, June 15. Under the new schedule, the closures will be implemented at once, rather than a gradual phase-in as had been planned.
Airport operators in several states, including Florida, Illinois and Washington state, and the U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate contract towers, have filed lawsuits with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington seeking to halt the closures.
The suits contend that the closures violated a federal law meant to ensure major changes at airports do not erode safety and unfairly targeted the program for an outsized share of the more than $600 million the agency is required to trim from its budget by the end of September.
"The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts)," said the group's director, J. Spencer Dickerson. "We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat."
Federal officials have insisted that the closures wouldn't affect safety. And there is evidence that with improving safety, some of the closures would make economic sense.
It turns out that the FAA has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating many of the control towers, even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.
Had the FAA used more current data, it's probable that some low-traffic airport towers operated by private contractors would no longer have met the agency's criteria for funding, industry officials say. But the FAA has long been under pressure from members of Congress to open new towers at airports in their states, not to close them.
The FAA started paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average annual cost of more than $500,000 each.
In 1983, there were 10.7 accidents for every 100,000 departures involving small planes, business jets and other non-airline flights in the U.S., according to the National Transportation Safety Board. By 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, that rate had dropped to 6.5 accidents per 100,000 departures.
The commercial airline accident rate also has dropped, and fatalities have declined even more. There have been no passenger airline fatalities in the U.S. in more than four years, the longest period without fatalities since the dawn of the jet age half a century ago.
Former Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., a critic of the contract tower program, said he refused to allow lawmakers to insert provisions into bills requiring the FAA to pay for new control towers at airports in their districts when he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The Associated Press contributed to this story