Senate acts to avert government shutdown, but fails to save air towers

Washington -- Congress appears headed toward final approval of a bill that will avoid a government shutdown, but the legislation won't save Connecticut's air control towers.

The Senate voted 73-26 on a  short-term spending measure Wednesday that will keep the federal government running until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., both voted in favor of the bill. The House approved a similar bill last week.

But the continuing resolution would continue recent budget cuts, known as sequestration, that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to lay off the air traffic controllers who are under contract -- rather than agency employees -- in order to save money.

"Budget sequestration's reckless cuts are already being felt by individuals and businesses across the country, and without action, nearly all of Connecticut's airports will lose their air traffic controllers," Murphy said.

The only airport that would not be affected is Bradley International. All others can remain open, but pilots will have to fly by sight and their instruments.

"That would make airport shutdowns very likely and set off a chain reaction of job losses in cities and town across the state," Murphy said.

An attempt this week to attach an amendment that would restore funding to the FAA failed. That means it's likely that about 170 air control towers at small and medium-sized airports, including the six in Connecticut, will shut down.

The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and had 26 sponsors, including Murphy and Blumenthal.

"Once there is an accident, and somebody dies and a plane crashes, the question will always be 'What if there had been an air traffic control tower there? What if we had left the program in place?'" Moran said.

The Kansas Republican was so angered by the decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep the amendment off the Senate floor that Moran held up the legislation to avert the government shutdown for 30 hours.

Tim Larson, executive director of Tweed New Haven Municipal Airport, said the loss of the facility's air tower "will have an impact on general aviation and does not bode well for long-range planning."

"People are starting to call asking, 'Are you guys still going to be open?'" Larson said. "People are starting to fly out of somewhere else."

Besides Tweed, Danbury Municipal Airport, Brainard Airport, Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport, Groton-New London Airport and Waterbury-Oxford Airport are slated to lose their air towers.

All airports that are slated to lose an air tower had a chance to ask the FAA to review its decision in their case.

Several  in Connecticut did and Connecticut's lawmakers supported their appeal.

Tweed is the only Connecticut airport, save Bradley, that has commercial flights. U.S. Airways has four New Haven-Philadelphia flights out of Tweed each day.

But that is far below the 10,000 commercial flights per year threshold required by the FAA to keep a tower open.

The FAA will release a final list of air tower closures Friday. It's likely that most of the towers staffed by FAA contract employees will still be on the list.

Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, who represents Danbury Municipal Airport in the state Senate, wrote the FAA, making a case for the city's airfield. He argued that Danbury is the busiest general aviation airport in Connecticut and is also the busiest airport on the control tower closure list.

Blumenthal said he's not about to give up the fight. "We're exploring options that we can take," Blumenthal said.

One is trying to attach Moran's amendment to the latest legislation under consideration in the Senate -- a budget bill for 2014.

 

 

 

 

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