WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it will delay until June 15 the closure of 149 air traffic control towers that were slated to be shut down starting Sunday.
The goal is to give communities additional time to decide whether they will assume the costs of operating the towers, the agency said.
The decision comes after a number of airports filed suit to block the shutdowns, but it is only a temporary reprieve. Communities that do not agree to pick up the costs of running the towers could still lose them.
Last month, the FAA announced that it would close 149 towers run by FAA contractors because of mandatory budget cuts known as the sequester. The towers are mostly at small airports with fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Among the expected closures were three control towers in Pennsylvania: Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Capital City in Harrisburg and Lancaster Airport in Lancaster.
FAA officials said the shutdowns were needed to reach the $637 million in budget cuts the agency was obligated to make under the sequester. The FAA estimates that the closures will save $30 million to $40 million.
Republicans, however, questioned whether the closings were necessary, saying they thought there were other areas where cuts could be made. Contract towers were targeted in part because it is easier for the agency to shut them down, and they do not require the 12-month notice mandated for those staffed by FAA employees.
More than 1,000 contract air traffic controllers were expected to lose their jobs as a result of the closures.
At a "non-towered" airport, pilots are supposed to announce their intentions on a pre-established radio frequency, maintain a mental map of all the other traffic and then fly a set pattern, usually in a "u" shape, with the last turn lining them up with the runway. At a towered airport, a controller will assign them on a path that can involve turns or can be nearly straight in, with no need for a pilot to keep track of all the other traffic.
From the very beginning, the FAA's decision drew sharp criticism from aviation groups, private pilots and affected communities. Despite assurances from FAA officials that safety would remain a priority, the groups worried that safety would be compromised if the towers were closed.
The outcry prompted the FAA to delay its initial decision on which airports would lose their towers until late March. After the list finally was released March 22, airports in Washington, Indiana and Florida quickly filed suit to block the closures, contending that the agency had not done proper studies before deciding to shut the towers.
"This has been a complex process, and we need to get this right," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a written statement Friday. "Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."
Even with the FAA's decision to delay the closings, the fight to keep the towers open will continue.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said he and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to introduce legislation next week that will bar the FAA from closing any towers. Mr. Moran had made an unsuccessful bid to secure funding to keep the towers open during debate over the continuing resolution.
"While airports and air travelers across the country are breathing a sigh of relief, the Department of Transportation's decision to delay the closing of air traffic control towers is not a solution," Mr. Moran said. "Closing control towers is equivalent to removing stop lights and stop signs from our roads, and there is no reason they should be disproportionately targeted for an arbitrary and unfair 75 percent cut."
Post-Gazette staff writer Mark Belko and The New York Times contributed.