The air-traffic control tower at Page Field will remain open until at least Sept. 30. / The News-Press file photo
The transportation department has spoken: Air-traffic control towers scheduled to close in mid-June now will stay open until at least Sept. 30.
It’s a reprieve for local airports whose towers were on the federal budget sequester hit list. They include Page Field in Fort Myers; Naples Municipal Airport; and Punta Gorda Airport.
“This is the news we’ve been waiting and pushing for,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, one of the outspoken opponents of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to close 149 small towers. “Having these towers remain open is an issue of public safety and a huge part of the respective local economies.”
However, local airport directors still face uncertainty for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. And, they don’t like that the money to keep towers open is coming from a fund designed to help pay for airport capital improvements.
“We need to press on to assure tower funding is continued for fiscal year 2014, and that it’s done through the FAA’s operating budget, as opposed to the Airport Improvement Program,” said Bob Ball, Lee County Port Authority executive director.
Ball was talking about a statement Friday from the U.S. Department of Transportation that said:
• Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has determined there is enough money, under a bill passed by Congress last month, to keep the towers open through the end of the budget year.
• Money also is available to end the air-traffic controller furloughs.
In addition to keeping the contractor-operated towers open, the FAA said earlier this week that it intends to continue to staff control towers at 72 busier airports overnight. The agency had initially planned to eliminate midnight shifts of controllers at those airports to save money.
Controller furloughs kicked in late April, causing delays for thousands of flights across the country. Less than a week later, Congress passed a bill allowing the FAA to shift $253 million from other accounts to end the furloughs.
Friday’s statement gave airports — and their air traffic controllers — some breathing room.
Page Field tower supervisor Bob Schultz said controllers were bracing to lose their jobs on June 15, with many trimming their personal budgets in advance.
“I’ll probably pick up golf again,” Schultz said.
Naples Municipal Airport chief Ted Soliday doesn’t know whether Friday’s developments will scuttle the lawsuit his airport entered against the FAA.
And, Soliday noted, the fiscal year will end in less than five months. Congress and President Barack Obama still need to reach spending agreement for 2014 fiscal year starting Oct 1 or sequestration revives with even deeper cuts.
Soliday had looked at the feasibility of paying for the controllers if FAA funding vanished. He’s begun budget preparations for the next fiscal year and can’t be sure the federal funding for towers will be there after September.
Said Soliday: “We’ll have to do some creative thinking.”
Gannett News Service contributed to this report.