Obama Control-Tower Shutdowns Spur Mounting Airport Suits
By Tom Schoenberg & Andrew Zajac – Apr 3, 2013 9:00 AM ET
Airports that serve Ohio State University and the headquarters of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. joined a lawsuit offensive to stop the U.S. from shutting air-traffic control operations as part of government- wide spending cuts.
Since the first suits were filed in federal appeals courts in Manhattan and Washington last week, at least eight more airports brought cases challenging closures scheduled to begin April 7. They include the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, where State Farm is based, which handled more than 579,000 passengers in 2011, and the Ohio State University airport in Columbus.
“I’ve never seen an issue galvanize people like this,” Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Contract Tower Association, said in an interview. “The administration made the closing of control towers the poster-child for sequestration.”
The shutdowns were ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration as the agency grappled with a need to trim $637 million from its $16 billion budget under congressionally mandated cuts known as sequestration. Air-traffic control services provided by contractors are slated to be closed at 149 small and midsize airports.
Peter Kirsch, of the Denver-based law firm Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell LLP, said one of the airports will probably ask the court to put the closure plan on hold unless the FAA does so voluntarily. Kirsch represents six airports in three of the suits, including one in San Francisco.
The Bloomington airport authority, in a March 26 letter, asked FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to delay any action while the court reviews its petition, arguing the agency failed to follow required procedures for analyzing whether an operational change could affect safety. The facility is slated to close May 5.
Planes can continue to fly into airports without working control towers. Instead of being guided by controllers, pilots radio one another to manage takeoffs and landings, under FAA procedures.
The shutdowns, which will be phased in over four weeks, could cost 750 to 1,100 controllers and supervisors their jobs, according to Dickerson. Control towers at larger airports are staffed by FAA employees.
The FAA could save $1.7 billion up front and about $1 billion more annually by closing 187 air-traffic radar rooms and building consolidated centers to control flights over large regions, a study by the libertarian think-tank Reason Foundation found.
While most of the litigation has been filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, which consolidated the cases, Flathead Municipal Airport Authority in Kalispell, Montana, and Friedman Memorial Airport Authority in Hailey, Idaho, sued March 29 in the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco. A lawsuit filed by Friends of La Guardia Airport Inc. was filed March 25 in U.S. Court of Appeals in New York.
“Safety is the FAA’s top priority,” Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. After a review, “the FAA determined that the agency’s long-standing procedures for ceasing operations of towers and the transfer of airspace between facilities will maintain safety at the airports that will no longer receive federal funding for on-site air traffic services.”
The Justice Department, in filings yesterday in San Francisco and Washington, said the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation will decide which court will handle the cases.
Before bringing its lawsuit, Friedman Memorial appealed its loss of tower service to the FAA on both national interest and safety grounds, according to Richard Baird, the facility’s manager. He said they’re scheduled to close the service on May 5.
Airports losing their towers averaged 54,000 flights in 2011, the most recent year for which FAA data are available. Four had fewer than 20,000 landings and takeoffs, according to agency data.
During peak operations, the lack of air-traffic control service will overburden the FAA regional control facility in Salt Lake City, said Baird, whose airport serves the Sun Valley ski resort 13 miles (21 kilometers) to the north and has about 30,000 operations annually.
He said tower service should be considered security for high-profile visitors who frequent Sun Valley, where the airport is in a narrow valley with rising terrain on both sides.
“We have kings, queens, heads of state and people in the U.S. government far enough up that they require some level of security,” Baird said in a telephone interview.
The lead Washington case is Spokane Airport Board v. Huerta, 13-1080, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington). The California case is Flathead Municipal Airport Authority v. Huerta, 13-71133, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco). The New York case is Paskar v. Federal Aviation Administration, 13-1070, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Manhattan).
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