GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — The air traffic control tower at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport has been spared — for now.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that the tower at the Grand Island airport was one of 16 federal contract towers under the “cost-share” program that will remain open because congressional statute sets aside funds every fiscal year for those towers.
Some other towers across the country weren't as fortunate. The FAA also announced Friday that 149 federal contract towers will close beginning April 7 as part of the agency's sequestration implementation plan.
Twenty-four other federal contract towers that had been previously proposed for closure will remain open because closing them would have a negative impact on the national interest, the FAA said.
According to Rep. Adrian Smith's office, while the cost-share program funds are subject to sequestration, the required 5 percent cut will not result in tower closures until the end of the federal government's fiscal year, which is Sept. 30.
Mike Olson, the airport's executive director, returned Friday from a trip to Washington, where he told Nebraska's congressional delegation about the possible economic impact that closing the tower would have on Grand Island.
If Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government financed, budget cuts might not affect tower operations at the Grand Island airport after Sept. 30, Olson said.
But that creates uncertainty for the airport and its board of directors, which have plans to build a new terminal and expand the runway.
“Unfortunately, it is politics at an all-time low,” Olson said.
Recently, Smith asked the FAA to explain its decision to close contract control towers.
In the letter, Smith, along with 44 of his colleagues, requested a detailed assessment of the effects of the tower closures on the nation's aviation infrastructure; a list of the alternatives considered to mitigate the sequester's impact on the contract tower program; and a list of all conventions, conferences and trips organized by, paid for or attended by FAA staff, and their cost to taxpayers.
According to Smith's office, the FAA never responded.
Smith said he is very concerned about the impact of tower closures on local economies, air safety and aviation infrastructure.
“The FAA has serious questions it must answer about how it came to the decision to close towers and what alternatives, if any, it considered,” Smith said. “The FAA's budget has significantly increased in recent years, and it seems a bit disingenuous for the agency to now claim it cannot operate at 2008 funding levels without severe, arbitrary cuts to tower services.”
The Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island set a passenger record in 2012.
Passenger numbers totaled 56,059. That's a 19 percent increase over the 47,090 boardings in 2011, according to the airport. The most boardings previously was 51,391 in 1980.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., is a co-sponsor of Sen. Jerry Moran's bipartisan FAA amendment that would protect air traffic control contract towers from the effects of the sequester. The amendment essentially takes $50 million in unobligated funds from FAA's research and capital account to ensure contract towers remain operational.
“This is another example of the administration's attempt to convince people that there is no room for spending cuts in a budget that has increased nearly 20 percent since 2008,” Johanns said. “I think we all know better.”
In Iowa, the Dubuque Regional Airport is among the 149 federal contract towers on the closing list and is slated to lose its air traffic control tower starting early next month.