Five air traffic control towers in Maryland that had been scheduled to shut down in June as a result of federal budget cuts are now expected to remain open, lawmakers said Wednesday — easing fears that the closures could back up flights at BWI Marshall Airport.
A provision tucked into a high-profile bill approved by Congress last week to end furloughs of air traffic controllers — and the flight delays they caused — also leaves more than $30 million available for towers at 149 small airports nationwide, lawmakers said.
Airport administrators and lawmakers in both parties say the small airports are critical to the economies of the rural areas they often serve. Maryland officials also had expressed concern that closing Martin State Airport in Baltimore County would have affected air traffic at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport
"We get a little bit more breathing room," said Kevin Daugherty, manager of the Frederick Municipal Airport.
The possibility of the Frederick tower's closing drew national attention, because it opened less than a year ago, after being built with federal stimulus money.
Together, the five airports handled 342,441 commercial and private flights last year. Their towers are staffed by controllers who are under contract with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The closures were among the first tangible cuts the Obama administration threatened under the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Those budget cuts began March 1 after Congress was unable to reach a bipartisan agreement to avoid them.
The FAA was required to cut $600 million from its nearly $48 billion budget between March and the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Lawmakers have addressed some cuts by giving agencies more flexibility to shift money around. The bill approved by Congress last week and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Wednesday allows the U.S. Department of Transportation to use money from better-funded accounts to end the furloughing of some 15,000 air traffic controllers.
That legislation came in response to complaints that the furloughs were causing thousands of flight delays in New York, Washington, Cleveland and other hubs.
Republicans accused the administration of allowing those delays to happen. Transportation officials countered that their hands were tied by the rigidity of the sequestration law.
In addition to resolving the broader furlough issue, the law also set aside $33 million that lawmakers expect will be used to keep the smaller control towers open.
"The legislation that we gave them should take care of the problem," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. He said the towers are a "driving force in the economy of the rural parts of our state."
Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, have both been active on the issue. The lawmakers sent a letter to the Transportation Department last month calling on officials to delay the closures.
And Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, told the Associated Press he expects the money will be used for the towers, based on conversations he had with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Legislative aides from both parties said that is their understanding as well.
But the Transportation Department has not publicly committed to spending the money on the towers — a spokesman said only that department officials are reviewing the law. And lobbyists involved in crafting the measure noted that while early drafts directed money specifically to the towers, the final bill did not.
The money is expected to come from an account funded by a surcharge on airline tickets that is used to pay for airport improvements such as runway resurfacing. The arrangement is not expected to affect any planned projects because the fund is running a surplus.
Closing towers is not the same as closing airports. Pilots can rely on guidance from staffed FAA facilities or can use a common radio frequency to warn other aircraft of their landing approach or takeoff. The towers at issue mostly handle private planes.
But aviation officials have said they rely on Martin to field slower private plane traffic so they can maintain the flow of faster commercial flights at BWI.
Some rely on Hagerstown and Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport for commercial airline connections. Salisbury's airport is also the Delmarva Peninsula's distribution center for FedEx, handling six flights a day.
Frederick, meanwhile, handles an average of 326 flights a day. When officials broke ground on the new $5.3 million tower in 2010, it was hailed as "an extra layer of safety for pilots" by Michael Huerta, now the FAA's administrator.
Aviation officials in Maryland cheered news that a solution for the towers appears to have emerged. But they also noted that the legislation would cover the towers only through the end of September.
That means the fight over the towers is likely to begin anew this fall.
"There's a lot of support in Congress to do something about it," said Paul Wiedefeld, who manages both BWI and Martin State. "We're looking for a long-term solution."