Congress moves to avert furloughs, layoffs of nation's air traffic controllers

News-DemocratApril 26, 2013 

The U.S. House on Friday overwhelmingly passed a measure that would end unpaid furloughs for air traffic controllers at larger airports, including St. Louis Downtown Airport in Sauget, and avert scheduled layoffs for traffic controllers at 149 smaller airports around the country, including in Bethalto and Carbondale.

The House approved the measure on a 361-41 vote, a day after the Senate swiftly passed the legislation Thursday. The vote came as lawmakers prepared to leave Washington for a weeklong spring recess and travelers around the country were experiencing long delays at airports.

President Barack Obama still must sign the bill. It remains unclear whether he will do so, or how soon any changes would take effect.

The furloughs of air traffic controllers who work directly for the Federal Aviation Administration, along with scheduled layoffs of contract controllers at smaller airports, were part of the $85 billion in across-the-board federal spending cuts -- known as the sequester -- that began to take effect last month at government agencies.

Like scores of other airports, St. Louis Downtown Airport has been coping with federally mandated furloughs for its one dozen air traffic controllers.

But in contrast to the flight delays experienced at larger airports this week because of the furloughs, St. Louis Downtown Airport, previously known as Parks Airport, so far had not seen problems involving delays or safety issues, according to Airport Director Bob McDaniel.

"What they have told me is that by reducing some of their administrative time, they're able to cover all shifts and all traffic loads with no reduction in service expected," said McDaniel, whose facility handles up to 900 daily take offs and landings of small passenger aircraft in good weather.

Despite the latest action in Congress, avoiding the layoffs of tower controllers at the smaller airports is far from certain, said David Miller, the director of St. Louis Regional Airport, in Bethalto.

"It's a little too early for the champagne, but there has been some forward movement," he said.

Responding to an outpouring of complaints about delays at major airports around the country caused by controller furloughs that began Sunday, Congress passed the bill that gives the Federal Aviation Administration power to move $253 million to end the furloughs and avert the layoffs of contract controllers.

Gary Shafer, director of Southern Illinois Airport near Carbondale, noted the measure that Congress passed does not contain language directed specifically at protecting contract air controllers at his airport from being laid off.

"It's still unclear how the FAA will administer that money that they've just been given," Shafer said, "or whether it's going to include retaining the contract towers through Sept. 30, which is all the authority they were given. We've got a ways to go yet. We're still holding our breath."

Unlike St. Louis Downtown Airport, the Bethalto and Carbondale airports rely on outside contract controllers, all of whom are slated by the FAA to be laid off beginning June 15, pending action by the president.

Even if it loses its traffic control tower, St. Louis Regional Airport plans to remain open, because pilots are trained to perform takeoffs and landings without control tower help, said Miller.

"It's very important to understand that the official verbiage is that this would be a 'non-towered' airport," Miller said, noting that flights from his facility would still be controlled out of St. Louis. "It would not be an uncontrolled airport."

Miller, however, called the impending loss of air traffic controllers a "risk management issue" that is difficult to quantify in terms of safety.

"It just makes good safety sense if you have an extra set of eyes and ears up there watching the airfield," he said.

The loss of its tower staff at the Carbondale airport could jeopardize the aviation program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which depends on airport tower staff to ensure a safe flight environment for 80 or so university aviation students each semester, said David NewMeyer, chairman of SIUC's aviation and flight program.

"The key thing for us is safety," NewMyer said. "We have a parallel runway system here, and we just don't see it being used without a tower."

Shafer, the airport director, called it "one of those airports that just can't live without air traffic control. It would be extremely dangerous to try."

Nearly 6,000 flight delays occurred nationwide for the three-day period beginning Sunday, when the federally mandated furloughs took effect. This compares to 2,500 delays for the same period a year ago, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the largest union that represents controllers.

The FAA estimates the air controller furloughs will save slightly more than $200 million through Sept. 30.

The furloughs of FAA-employed air controllers, as well as the impending lay-off of contractor controllers, have led to a series of efforts to end the sequester-induced furloughs and layoffs apart from the legislation passed by the House and Senate.

The first attempted remedy is a federal lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, that Southern Illinois Airport has joined as one of 20 plaintiffs. The lawsuit aims to stop the FAA from imposing the controller layoffs at the Bethalto and Carbondale airports, plus airports at 147 locations nationwide.

The second attempted remedy is a separate bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, that aims to force the Obama administration to restore funding to all 149 airports scheduled to lose their tower controllers. It's still unclear whether the legislation passed Friday by the House would render this bill moot.

Davis' measure would compel Obama to move FAA dollars from less important programs to keep the traffic controllers at the smaller airports on the job. Davis notes that Obama has already stepped in to move money to prevent furloughs for federal meat inspectors and prison corrections officers called for by sequestration.

"They've got the money," Davis said. "This is a priority problem on behalf the FAA."

Davis, who sits on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and who also serves as vice-chairman of that panel's aviation subcommittee, noted the FAA spends $500 million per year on outside consultants, plus another $100 million annually operating its own fleet of aircraft.

"They ought to be able to reprioritize the money they spend and keep passenger safety a priority instead of just playing politics," he said. "We want them really to look inward at their budget and find ways to cut, and to find ways to make better decisions so that those towers can remain open."

(Some information for this story came from the Associated Press.)

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