Lawmakers: Spare our flight towers

A group of Connecticut lawmakers is pushing back on the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) plans to close air traffic control towers in their state as part of the agency's sequester budget cuts.

The FAA has revealed a list of 173 air traffic control towers, including five in Connecticut, it says it needs to close next month to meet its obligation to reduce its 2013 spending by about nine percent.

But Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, all Democrats, said in a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta that the Connecticut airports should be spared from being closed.

"We write to express our deep concern about the slated closure of the air traffic control tower at Tweed-New Haven along with 5 additional general aviation control towers throughout the State of Connecticut," the lawmakers wrote to Huerta. 

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"While we understand the extraordinary funding situation the FAA is in as a result of the sequester, we strongly believe that these closures will put at risk public safety in and around the airspace of Connecticut and the local economies that rely on these facilitates for tax revenue and jobs," they continued.

Under the sequestration law, the FAA will have to cut its 2013 budget by $600 million.

In addition to the flight tower closings, the agency has said it will have to furlough air traffic controllers for as many as 11 days and eliminate overnight shifts at about 60 towers that will be left open.

The Obama administration has pointed to the FAA's budget-cutting plans to argue that the sequester will cause delays for commercial airline passengers.

Blumenthal, Murphy and DeLauro said Friday that closing the tower at the Tweed New Haven Regional Airport would have a particularly negative impact. 

"We believe that public health could be at significant risk should this tower close," the lawmakers wrote to Huerta. "The Tweed tower services Yale-New Haven Hospital, not just for organ donation flights, but also for the hospital’s helipad. We have been told by local officials that the 'Life Star' flights to and from this helipad for medical emergencies could be affected if the tower were to close."

The lawmakers added that "Tweed also has a relationship with a number of not-for-profit organizations that fly injured veterans from around the country to the nearby West Haven Veterans Affairs facility for treatment."

Republicans in Congress have argued that the FAA could cut its budget in other places to avoid impacting commercial aviation, like furloughing air traffic controllers and flight towers.

“A review of FAA spending over the past several years has exposed several areas ripe for belt-tightening at the FAA,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) wrote this week in a letter to Huerta. 

“These areas include, but are not limited to: a yearly travel budget for FAA employees of $179 million; a fleet of 46 aircraft that costs $143 million a year to maintain; a 41 percent, or $3 billion budget increase since 2002, even though domestic flights are down 27 percent from 2000 traffic levels; and clear mismanagement and waste on Air Traffic Control modernization contracts,” the GOP lawmakers continued.

The FAA has maintained that the sequester requires it to make equal cuts to all areas of its budget.

"Under sequestration our flexibility is very limited because we must cut proportionately from all affected accounts," Huerta said during a hearing of the House Transportation Committee last week. "We can’t move money around and we have limited flexibility to choose what it is that we’re able to cut."

The Connecticut lawmakers were more concerned on Friday with the impact of the flight tower closures on passengers flying to their state, however.

"The Tweed tower is a filter for air traffic going into and out of New York's airports as it services the airspace — some of the busiest in the nation — in Long Island Sound and lower Connecticut," they wrote to Huerta. "And Tweed is the only airport in New England with commercial service that is on the list of FAA closures.

"Tweed is a major economic engine and public safety asset for the City of New Haven and the region," the Connecticut lawmakers continued. "We should not put safety, jobs, or vital commercial air service at the Tweed airport at risk."

The FAA is scheduled to make a final decision on its list of flight tower closures next week.

The full original list released by the agency can be read here.