Legislators work to keep air traffic towers operational

WILLIAMSTOWN – As airport managers and air traffic controllers around the country scramble to find a way to keep their air traffic control towers open, legislators are working to help them.

On Friday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., sent a bipartisan letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration, stating the agencies’ sequestration implementation is disproportionately hurting air traffic control service in rural communities. The letter was co-signed by a bipartisan group of seven congressional representatives.

The letter was sent to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta as one of a series of efforts to protect the more than 100 contract air traffic control towers across the nation, including three in West Virginia.

“I am certainly excited to hear about this,” said Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport manager Terry Moore. “Rockefeller and Rahall wield some power as longtime proponents of West Virginia and it is exciting that everyone is getting behind us.”

In the last few weeks, officials with the three West Virginia airports in jeopardy of losing their towers Wheeling, Lewisburg and locally have been working with federal and state legislators to try to work out a solution to keep the towers in operation.

Last week, the FAA announced the towers would remain open and federally funded until June 15. This temporary stay gives the airports another month to figure out how to fund their towers until October when there is a chance both the House and Senate will pass a budget with funding for the towers.

“If we lose the tower we will still be open and have commercial service,” Moore said. “We just won’t have a tower.”

The letter states that contract towers have “long played an integral role in. . . efforts to manage the safety and efficiency of the nation’s complex airspace.

“The decision to shutter contract towers on such a wide-scale basis is unprecedented. . . Despite the serious concerns expressed by elected representatives in the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis, as well as: local officials; business leaders; airports; air traffic controllers; general aviation operators and businesses; state aviation officials; and other concerned citizens, the FAA has yet to address the impact this action may have on aviation system safety or efficiency.”

The co-signers of the letter with Rockefeller and Rahall are senators John Thune, R-S.D.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; as well as Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.; and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.

“It is tremendous that the letter and support of the towers is bipartisan,” Moore said. “I’m pretty enthusiastic about the discussions going on as this has been a pretty big battle the last couple of weeks and it is kind of exhausting.”

Moore said that he is pleased to know that officials with local, state and national governments are working on the issue.

“We already know Sen. (Joe) Manchin (D-W.Va.) is a sponsor of keeping the towers open and it sounds like we are giving it the old college try – give it our best shot,” Moore said.

The tower at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport is listed as one of those to be closed this spring because of the FAA’s required $637 million budget cuts under sequestration, unless airports continued operations as a nonfederal contract tower.