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Why the FAA is closing 149 airport control towers
Air-traffic controllers have to be paid, and some local communities may have to start ponying up themselves
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is asking his state's transportation bureau to pay to keep its air-traffic controllers on the job.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is asking his state's transportation bureau to pay to keep its air-traffic controllers on the job. AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
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n Tuesday, President Obama signed a bill financing the government through Sept. 30, avoiding a government shutdown and providing lawmakers a months-long respite from the budget brinksmanship that has seized Washington for two years. The stopgap funding measure also locks in $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts from the sequestration (with a bit of funding restored for the military and research) that kicked in March 1, a point White House press secretary Jay Carney noted:

There is no question that we believe we should not have come to this point where sequester would be imposed. There's no question that we believe regular folks out there are being unnecessarily harmed by imposition of the sequester — which was designed by Democrats and Republicans purposefully never to become law, to be filled with nonsensical approaches to deficit reduction. [White House Press Briefing]

Almost all federal agencies and programs are dealing with the reduced funding levels, but one particular set of cuts is causing a lot of angst on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country: Air-traffic control towers. The Federal Aviation Administration, ordered to cut $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year, is closing 149 air traffic control facilities at small airports in 46 states, starting April 7.

This won't shut down the affected airports, explains The Associated Press' Jason Keyser, "but pilots will be left to coordinate takeoffs and landings among themselves over a shared radio frequency with no help from ground controllers, under procedures that all pilots are trained to carry out." Each of the airports on the list has fewer than 10,000 commercial flights a year, and fewer than 150,000 total annual flight operations.

Lawmakers in the districts facing tower-less airports are upset, of course. Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler has a roundup of outraged reactions from House Republicans, most of whom insist that the FAA could find the money elsewhere, usually by cutting "waste" and "non-essential items" in its budget. "But the majority of FAA's employees are air traffic controllers," says Beutler, and these low-traffic airports are the non-essential expenditures. He then draws a bigger picture:

We've noted previously that outside Washington D.C. — where politicians and reporters obsess endlessly over inconsequential but high-valence things like White House tours and Easter egg hunts — sequestration is beginning to cause real harm, and political pain.... The effort [to reverse the tower closures] reflects a pattern among lawmakers — particularly GOP lawmakers — to decry sequestration cuts in their own states and districts, but decline to support a sequestration replacement plan that includes higher revenue. [TPM]

Steve Benen at The Maddow Blog piles on, trotting out a phrase he credits Beutler with coining: "Sequestration NIMBYism."* He's seconded by Jed Lewison at Daily Kos:

After years of doing nothing but talk about the need to cut spending, Republicans have finally started to get what they want — and it turns out they don't like it. But instead of doing the obvious thing, which would be to change their position on austerity, they're simply issuing press releases and statements about how they don't like the cuts that are taking place in their own back yard.... There is no magic wand to make spending cuts be painless, and for Republicans to pretend otherwise is transparently dishonest and defies common sense. [Daily Kos]

The counterargument from Republicans is that the Obama administration is purposefully making the cuts hurt, to score political points. Many rural airports serve areas that send Republicans to Congress, after all, and aviation isn't exactly a hobby of the working class. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) railed against the FAA cuts: "While President Obama has chosen to make sequestration as painful as possible, I cannot with good conscience allow him to put his political agenda ahead of public safety."

So, is there a better way for the FAA to cut $637 million? It doesn't have a lot of options at the moment, says Andrew Bender at Forbes. As FAA chief Michael Huerta said in February, his agency will take more than 60 percent of the Department of Transportation sequester cuts, even though it makes up about 20 percent of the department's budget.

Also, the 149 affected towers were targeted in part because they (along with about 100 others) use contract air-traffic controllers, not FAA employees, so those jobs can be cut without the one-year negotiation period worked out by the federal air-traffic controllers' union. (All 47,000 FAA employees will face furloughs, however.) Contract towers cost less to operate, Bender says, so "more time to negotiate cost savings at FAA-operated towers, for example, might have enabled more contract towers to stay open."

But because the 149 towers use private controllers, there is an option for communities that want to keep their airport towers open: Pay for it yourself. Perry plans to do just that — on Wednesday he asked the Texas Department of Transportation to provide emergency funds to keep the 13 Texas airports on the list open — and other regional airports are scrambling to come up with their own funding.

In the end, nobody's really happy about the air-tower closures. But that was the point of the sequester.

*NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Back Yard

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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