Lawsuits to Block FAA Contract Tower Closures Multiply

The Collin County Regional Airport in McKinney, Texas The Collin County Regional Airport in McKinney, Texas Tony Gutierrez/AP

At least 14 jurisdictions nationwide have filed lawsuits against the Federal Aviation Administration in hopes of overturning last month’s decision to close 149 contract airport control towers to implement sequestration.

The lawsuits, many of which have been combined by the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit, argue that the FAA’s action, however reluctant, violates safety provisions in federal law. The first suits were brought separately by authorities at small- and medium-sized feeder-route airports in Spokane, Wash., Naples, Fla., and Bloomington, Ill.

“We welcome any and all efforts to reverse the FAA’s decision both in federal courts and on Capitol Hill,” Spencer Dickerson, president of the American Association of Airport Executives and the U.S. Contract Tower Association, told Government Executive. “We’re profoundly disappointed because this is clearly an administration and White House-driven decision to make control towers the poster child of sequestration, to make it very visible and very painful to the American people.” He added that “aviation should not be a political pawn.”

Peter Dumont, president of the Air Traffic Control Association, said, “I don’t know if [filing the lawsuits is] the right way to go or not, I just know closing towers is not the right thing to do because the overarching issue is safety.”

The fact that members of Congress are back in their communities for the Easter break, he said, provides “an excellent time for the people who work at the facilities and airports to put together a town hall meeting and actually talk to congressmen and senators” on how the tower closings -- which are slated to begin April 7 -- affect the national and regional economies.

At least 1,000 controllers will be affected, Dumont added, “all of them professionals who have been working since the announcement was made while worrying about their families. They are distracted -- unnecessarily.”

Ron Taylor, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, which continues as a bargaining unit for more than 20 towers despite its members having been fired by President Reagan in 1981, also welcomed the lawsuits. “It sounds like the FAA has violated its preamble and is not making safety the top priority,” he said. “The FAA is using the contract tower program as a scapegoat to avoid addressing internal programs that are not essential to safety.”

The FAA, which has said it had little choice in closing the contract towers under the across-the-board cutting requirements of the 2011 Budget Control Act, is not commenting on the lawsuits. On March 27, it issued detailed guidance for smaller airports on how to safely make the needed adjustments.

In perhaps another sign of the aviation industry’s disgruntlement over the closures, the Aerospace News Network on Monday published an April Fool’s story titled, “Sequestration Pushes FAA Into Chapter 11.” The move to hire a law firm and declare the agency bankrupt, according to the article, “has the blessing of both DoT Secretary Ray LaHood and President Obama, who said it was appropriate to spread the wealth around among attorneys. The White House said it was a jobs-creation measure, estimating that the case would mean several hundred jobs in the legal sector alone.”

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