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Senators debate FAA decision closing control towers at small Missouri, Illinois airports

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Blaming sequestration, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced the closing of a number of air traffic control towers at smaller airports in Missouri and Illinois.

The affected airports include Branson and Columbia in Missouri and five in Illinois: St. Louis Regional Airport, Central Illinois Regional Airport, Decatur Airport, Southern Illinois Airport and Waukegan Regional Airport.

All told, the FAA announced Friday that it is closing 149 “contract towers’’ at smaller airports around the country, as of April 7.  At such airports, the federal government contracts with private firms to operate the air traffic control towers.

The cuts are necessary, the FAA said, for it to comply with the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by "sequestration,'' which went into effect this month when Congress failed to agree on an alternative.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, "I'm working hard to make sure these closures don't result in any disruption to passenger flights. I've been assured that's the case in the vast majority of closures, and I'll continue to closely monitor the situation in Missouri."

U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were swift with statements decrying the cutbacks. But the two differ sharply over who’s to blame.

Durbin said the closures were yet another example of the inappropriate budget cuts forced by the sequester, which required across-the-board trims in every federal department or agency as of March 1.  In many areas, the cuts – totaling $85 billion through Sept. 30 -- are just now taking effect.

“There are many in Congress still arguing that the spending cuts due to sequestration won’t make a difference. I disagree. These cuts are going to have real impacts on real people in Illinois,” said Durbin. “I’ve heard and will continue to hear from airport managers, workers, travelers and businesses throughout the state of Illinois that have serious concerns about the sequestration's impact on commercial and general aviation. I share their concern that these serious steps will increase delays, reduce capacity and potentially compromise the safety of the airspace in the areas surrounding these airports.”

But Blunt contended that sequestration is being used as an excuse.

“These towers were operational in 2009 when the FAA received less funding than they will under the sequestration – further proving these closures are irresponsible and unnecessary,” said Blunt. “Federal spending has skyrocketed 19 percent since 2008. There’s no reason the Obama administration shouldn’t be able to figure out a 2.5 percent spending cut without interrupting Americans’ lives and air travel to communities like Branson and Columbia.”

Blunt noted that he had unsuccessfully pressed the Senate to approve an amendment to bar imposing sequestration cuts on air traffic control towers.

Blunt cited a report issued last summer by the Department of Transportation inspector general that praised the contract-tower program as highly efficient.

Durbin asserted that the nation’s aviation system “is not the only sector of our economy that will be harmed by sequestration and the ongoing effort in the Senate to find a balanced solution.”

“Sequestration will reduce the readiness of our troops; put up to 10,000 veterans at substantial risk of becoming homeless; drop 70,000 children from Head Start, including 2,700 from Illinois; take nutritional assistance away from 600,000 families; and reduce foreclosure prevention and other counseling,” said Durbin.

“We need to stop sequestration with a balanced solution of budget cuts and revenue. In the Senate, we are currently debating budget legislation that will lay the groundwork to stop sequestration and the negative impacts it will have on our economy, our troops and working families across America.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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