FAA relents on flight tower closures; GOP declares sequester skirmish win

Republican lawmakers claimed victory on Friday over the Obama administration aftter the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it would not close 149 air traffic control towers because of the sequester. 

The FAA had identified a list of 149 towers for closure because of the sequester's requirement that it cut its 2013 budget by $600 million. 

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Republicans argued the closures were unnecessary because of legislation passed last month that allowed the FAA to move $253 million from other areas of its budget to prevent furloughs.  

GOP leaders said the bill gave the FAA enough money to also keep the flight towers open.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees the FAA, said on Friday that they were right.

"U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today that USDOT has determined that the recently enacted Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 will allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to transfer sufficient funds to end employee furloughs and keep the 149 low activity contract towers originally slated for closure in June open for the remainder of fiscal year 2013," the agency said in a statement. 

Republicans immediately cast the decision as a victory in the sequester fight over President Obama.

“It’s been a long fight since our original amendment to prevent the towers from closing and preserve aviation safety was blocked from a vote, but in the end common sense prevailed over politics,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said. “This victory is thanks to a bipartisan coalition of Senators and Congressmen and women who came together to demonstrate that there are more responsible ways to cut spending than by compromising safety.”

Democrats in the Senate also praised the FAA's decision. 

“I’m glad that the Department of Transportation has used the resources that Congress provided to keep 149 contract air traffic control towers open through this fiscal year," Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who is chairman of the upper chamber's transportation committee, said in a statement.

"This decision means that airports in many communities – including four in West Virginia – will continue to have access to critical air traffic control services," Rockefeller continued.

Rockefeller called the sequester reversal that was passed for the FAA a short-term solution, however. He called on Republican leaders in the House to abandon their resist to tax increases in any possible replacement for the automatic budget-cutting law.

"While this is good news for the travelling public, it is only a temporary fix," Rockefeller said. "We will face the same dire consequences in October if House Republicans do not work with the Senate and the president to forge a balanced compromise to replace the sequester.”

The FAA had previously pushed back the closures until June 15 before saying on Friday that it was cancelling them altogether. 

Since the sequester was implemented, GOP lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of purposely inconveniencing airline passengers to win political points in the fight over the sequester. 

The FAA said it had no choice but to furlough air traffic controllers and close flight towers because the sequester required it to cut all areas of its budget. For a week, the agency purposely delayed flights to ease traffic congestion at major airports until Congress passed the measure.

Aviation groups hailed the FAA's decision to use the money in the legislation to keep the flight towers open. 

"We are grateful that the leaders of DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration have moved to utilize the clear authority provided by the Congress to keep contract towers open and operational beyond June 15," U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA) J. Spencer Dickerson said in a statement.

"The broad coalition of communities, airports, air traffic controllers, aviation system users, and members of Congress that has emerged in recent months united in the fight to keep contract towers open is a testament to the important role these facilities play in enhancing the safety and efficiency of the nation's aviation system," Dickerson continued.

The DOT said on Friday that it would also use the FAA bill that was passed last month to "put $10 million towards reducing cuts and delays in core NextGen programs and will allocate approximately $11 million to partially restore the support of infrastructure in the national airspace system."

This story was updated at 4:18 p.m.