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FAA Delays Closing Airport Control Towers

air traffic control tower

This photo taken March 22, 2013 shows a Cessna aircraft parked near by the air traffic control tower at the Collin County Regional Airport at McKinney, in McKinney, Texas. Starting this weekend, control towers at scores of small airports are to begin shutting down because of government-wide automatic spending cuts. But federal officials insist the closures won't compromise safety, and there's evidence that some of the closures may even make economic sense. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday that it is delaying the closure of 149 airport control towers comes as a relief to airports in Decatur and Bloomington.

The cuts impact five airports in Illinois, and are tied to the automatic spending cuts known as the federal sequester.

The FAA said it needs more time to deal with legal challenges to the closures.

"This has been a complex process and we need to get this right," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."

Bloomington’s Central Illinois Regional Airport is one of several airports suing over the plan, saying the federal government did not follow its own rules and procedures before announcing the closures.

Airport Director Carl Olson said he is looking for other sources of revenue to keep the Bloomington airport’s tower open.

“Any diminishment of safety is going to have an immediate and cascading affect all around the country," Olson said. "This is not a Bloomington-Normal issue. This is not a Central Illinois issue. This pertain to the safety of the national airspace system across the entire United States.”

Decatur Airport Director Joe Attwood said the FAA’s delay is good news, saying that closing the towers, including the one in Decatur, would compromise flight safety.

“I’m pleased, but I’m a little bit disappointed at the same time," Attwood said. "I’d much rather that they said they would withdrawal the whole concept forever more, or at least indefinitely.”

Federal officials have insisted that the closures would not affect safety.

In a statement, Republican Congressman Rodney Davis of Taylorville says the administration should look at cuts in other areas of its budget to save money.

In addition to the Decatur and Boomington airports, other Illinois airports impacted by the cuts are St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton, Southern Illinois Airport in Carbondale and Waukegan Regional Airport near Chicago.

The FAA began paying contractors to staff and operate towers at a handful of small airports after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Today, there are 251 towers operated by private contractors at airports across the country at an average annual cost of more than $500,000 each.

Airport towers are prized by local communities as economic boosters, particularly in rural areas. Airlines are sometimes reluctant to schedule flights to airports where there are no on-site air traffic controllers.

Originally, the FAA said it would begin close the towers by April 7, but that date has been pushed to June 15. Under the new schedule, the closures will be implemented at once, rather than a gradual phase-in as had been planned.