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Senators fight to keep 149 air traffic control towers open

April 18, 2013 at 4:44 PM ET

Senator Moran, R-Kan., questions FAA Administrator Michael Huerta during a Senate subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

The FAA says it's out of money to meet cuts caused by sequestration and must cut funding to 149 air traffic control towers, but several lawmakers disagree and are fighting to keep them open.

"The agency has the money, " Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told NBC News. "It's in different accounts."

On Thursday, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta argued with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., testifying that the agency lacks the authority to move the cash into the right account that would save the towers.

"I'm not convinced," said Blumenthal, whose state is home to six of the towers set to be cut. "We're preparing legislation that would give them them additional authority and mandate the program's continuance."

The towers are "critically important in many parts of economy," Blumenthal said. "Closure would essentially create risks -- there's concerns for taking off in bad weather. My constituents are very concerned about jobs and the economy, and impact on safety."

Earlier this week, Sens. Moran and Blumenthal introduced the Protect Our Skies Act, which would prohibit the Department of Transportation from closing any air traffic control towers during fiscal years 2013 and 2014. The towers are set to close June 15.

'Big headache for us'
"We don't have the money to keep them open," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on transportation Tuesday. "It's a big headache for us."

But during a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing, Huerta said the FAA did have minor flexibility to request reprogramming funds impacted by the sequester.

Moran, in a press release, said "the closing is a misguided decision causing needless harm to employees, their communities, and regional economies, as well as air travel."

Several cities, along with the Contract Towers Association trade group, have filed federal lawsuits against the FAA to prevent the closures.

The towers provide pilot guidance at smaller and regional airports that primarily serve charter, corporate, military, and private aircraft. In their absence, using established FAA protocols, pilots will take off and land by sight, and coordinate with each other by radio.

Fifty communities have told the FAA they would join its non-contract tower program, meaning that they would fund the towers themselves. The towers were originally set to close on April 5, but the FAA said it pushed the date back to ease the transition for those local communities, as well as to fend off the various legal challenges.

The FAA said closing the towers would save $33 million. Under the sequestration, the FAA needs to cut $637 million.

"The towers are there for a reason," said Blumenthal. "Charles Lindbergh flew by sight, but why not use the most technologically advanced resources, including air control towers?"

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