FAA sued over plan to shut towers

Flights going to and from Orlando, FLA via Frontier Airlines at Trenton-Mercer County Airport on Jan. 18, 2013. Here, passengers wait for their plane to Florida. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Flights going to and from Orlando, FLA via Frontier Airlines at Trenton-Mercer County Airport on Jan. 18, 2013. Here, passengers wait for their plane to Florida. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 31, 2013

CHICAGO - Airport operators are mounting a legal challenge to the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to cut funding for 149 air traffic control towers, accusing the agency of violating federal law meant to ensure major changes do not erode safety.

Several airports are now asking a federal court to halt the plan and compel the FAA to study the potential safety impact more carefully, said Carl Olson, director of the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, Ill. Without a more cautious approach, he warned, lives will be put at risk by cuts he contends are arbitrary and the result of reckless political brinkmanship in Washington.

"I think everybody's going to realize what the industry knows, and that is there is a razor-thin margin of error in aviation and any diminishment of safety is going to have an immediate and cascading effect," Olson said Friday. "And all the talk to the contrary won't change that fact."

His airport is among the latest to file a lawsuit this week with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington. The others are Spokane airports in Washington state, and the operators of Florida airports in Naples, Ormond Beach, and Punta Gorda. The court merged the suits Thursday.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said Friday the agency could not comment on the pending litigation. The agency's administrator, Michael Huerta, has stressed that safety remains the FAA's top priority even as it is forced by the budget cutting known as sequestration to trim $637 million for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

Trenton-Mercer Airport and the Harrisburg, Latrobe, and Lancaster airports are slated for tower closures.

The FAA says it had no choice but to subject most of its 47,000 employees, including tower controllers, to furloughs and to close air traffic facilities run by contractors at 149 small airports with lighter traffic. The first of those closures will occur April 7.

The shutdowns do not mean airports have to close. All pilots are required to know how to land at airports without towers.

But airport directors, pilots, and others say stripping away an extra layer of safety during the most critical stages of flight will elevate risks.

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