The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday delayed until June 15 the closing of federally contracted air traffic control towers at airports across the country, including four in Oklahoma. Closures were expected to be phased in starting Sunday.
The FAA plans to eliminate funding for 149 towers nationwide as part of governmentwide budget cuts. State airports affected by the cuts include Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City, Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, Stillwater Regional Airport and Max Westheimer Airport in Norman.
Operators of those airports say the extension gives them more time to pursue alternative funding. The University of Oklahoma this week announced it will temporarily pay to keep the tower at Max Westheimer Airport open. In Stillwater, airport officials have asked the city for an additional $137,000 for its tower operations; the city council is expected to vote on the issue at a special meeting Monday.
Barbara McNally, manager of Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, said the FAA extension is valuable as she works on a deal to keep their tower operating.
“It's absolutely good news. We hoped for better, but this will do for now,” she said.
Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport is the only Oklahoma airport with commercial air service that was on the closure list; American Airlines serves the airport through its American Eagle airline.
Finding funding has been challenging, McNally said, because the FAA hasn't been clear on how much the airport will need. The airport would need an agreement with RVA, the Oklahoma City company that employs the air traffic controllers, and a separate agreement with the FAA for use of the tower, for which the airport would be charged a fee, she said.
Keren McLendon, chief financial officer of RVA, which employs more 500 air traffic controllers at 96 airports, said its employees were “very relieved and happy” to hear the FAA announcement. Many of them would have been out of a job Monday.
The company's managers were busy Friday afternoon calling all the control towers to let the workers know.
“We are cautiously optimistic that this will give everybody more time to find resources,” she said.
In its announcement, the FAA said about 50 airport authorities and other stakeholders want to fund the tower operations themselves, and the extension will allow them time to work out plans to do so.
“This has been a complex process and we need to get this right,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”
The agency also said it needed more time to deal with legal challenges to the closures. Airport operators in several states 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.
In its original schedule, the FAA planned to gradually phase in the closures over a month. Under the new plan, all closures will be implemented June 15.
Brianna Bailey, Business Writer; Associated Press.
• March 22: FAA announces it will eliminate funding for 149 contract towers nationwide.
• Sunday: Under the earlier plan, tower closures were expected to begin.
• June 15: Tower closures will be implemented, according to a new announcement.