By Chris Day
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Stillwater Regional Airport and five other small Oklahoma airports moved closer Thursday to landing federal funding to keep their air traffic control towers staffed through Sept. 30, 2014.
The Senate Appropriations Committee and House Appropriations Committee included dedicated funding for contract towers in their spending bills for the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration.
The House bill includes a minimum of $140 million in dedicated funding for the Contract Tower Program, including $10.35 million in the Contract Tower Cost-Share Program.
The Senate bill’s dedicated Contract Tower Program funding is set at $140.35 million. It includes $10.35 million for cost-share program.
The committee action is a first step.
The full House and Senate must approve the spending bills. Any differences between the bills must be reconciled and President Barack Obama must sign off before Stillwater, Norman, Lawton-Fort Sill, Ardmore, Enid and Wiley Post Airport in Oklahoma City airport officials can breathe easily.
Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission Director Vic Bird said he is confident contract tower funding is secure for fiscal year 2014. House and Senate subcommittees approved tower funding as did the appropriations committees.
“It’s two steps in each house in the same direction. That’s kind of a miracle in Washington,” Bird said.
The full House and Senate will approve the bills, Bird said. Some details may need to be worked out in a conference committee.
“I don’t think there will be any politics played with such an important safety issue this time around. I think all the parties involved learned from the gyrations the first time around. I think this will stay in the DOT/FAA funding bill — the money for these towers — and I think it will be signed by the president,” he said.
The Stillwater airport and five others were scheduled to lose federal funding for its air traffic controllers in April as part of the 10 percent across-the-board federal budget cuts commonly referred to as sequestration.
The FAA was required to trim $637 million from its budget. It chose to initiate furlough days for air traffic controllers at large airports and to sever air-traffic control contracts with 149 small airports around the nation.
The FAA reversed its decision in April after lawmakers in Washington let the agency shift money from other accounts to air traffic control programs. By moving $253 million into the air traffic control accounts, the FAA was able to end furlough days and keep the small-airport towers open through Sept. 30.
Stillwater airport officials started working with Oklahoma’s congressional delegation once the FAA reversal was finalized to ensure contract tower funding was included in the fiscal year 2014 appropriations bills, Stillwater Regional Airport Manager Gary Johnson said.
“It’s a big deal for us to have the safety the air-traffic control tower provides,” Johnson said.
Stillwater’s tower is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, Johnson said. Five air traffic controllers work at the tower. The appropriations committees’ decision gives them another year of job security.