By Chris Day
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Stillwater Regional Airport’s air traffic control tower will remain open at least until Sept. 30, the Stillwater City Council decided in a special meeting Monday night.
City councilors considered the airport tower issue after new councilor Gina Noble and second-term councilor Joe Weaver Jr. received the oaths of office. Noble and Weaver were elected in the April 2 municipal election.
The Federal Aviation Administration eliminated air traffic control tower contract funding as part of the 5-percent across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration.
Stillwater’s air traffic controller funding was scheduled to end April 24. Friday, the FAA announced it would delay those cuts until June 15 while it tries to resolve multiple lawsuits and give airport authorities and cities time to development methods to pay the air-traffic controller contracts.
“That extension, I think, was a result of a conference call with Mr. (FAA Administrator Michael) Huerta and David Grizzle, chief operating officer, where they spoke to about 250 of us about transitioning. They learned right away that we couldn’t respond that quickly and meet the requirements,” Stillwater airport Director Gary Johnson said.
City councilors unanimously approved spending up to $104,000 to keep the air traffic control operating until Sept. 30 if the FAA eliminates funding after June 15. The money will be appropriated from the city’s general fund.
The airport’s traffic control tower will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through June 15. If funding goes away, the airport tower will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday until Sept. 30.
It is the FAA’s job to staff the airport control towers. It is not the responsibility of the state, airport authorities or cities, Johnson said.
Johnson said he is hopeful Congress will restore funding in the 2014 federal budget.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R.-Kan., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to introduce a bill to prevent the FAA from closing towers. They also will continue the fight for funding to the 2014 federal budget.
“Though my initial amendment was blocked from a vote, it brought together a bipartisan coalition of senators who demonstrated that there are more responsible ways to cut spending than be compromising safety,” Moran said. “Closing towers is equivalent to removing stop lights and stops signs from our roads, and there is no reason they should be disproportionately targeted for an arbitrary and unfair 75 percent cut.”
The Stillwater airport owns the tower, the air traffic control equipment and radio frequencies, Johnson said. The only cost to the federal government is providing air traffic controllers.
In the coming months, Stillwater Regional Airport Authority trustees and airport and city staff will explore options to keep the tower operating, Johnson said.
Mayor John Bartley wanted airport officials and city staff to determine if the airport could increase fees to cover the costs of controllers if FAA funding is cut permanently.
“It sounds like they (city councilors) want to know the economic impact and the upside and downside of having air-traffic controllers,” Johnson said. “We feel like we can put that together for them in a format that really shows the value of it versus the costs. In the federal government, the call that cost-benefit.”