Today, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand called on the federal government to ensure the funds appropriated by Congress last Friday to avoid the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cuts be used to keep open the air traffic control towers at the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport and Griffiss Int’l Airport, which are critical to the local communities, businesses and economic growth. Specifically, Schumer and Gillibrand wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Huerta to urge that they use the funds and flexibility provided by Congress towards reversing plans to close the towers at Ithaca-Tompkins and Griffiss International Airport on June 15, 2013; these were the only airport contract towers set for closure in the state.
The Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 passed by Congress last week authorizes the FAA to spend $253 million to avoid the delays and closures that were set to hit due to the sequester and provides the level of flexibility needed to avoid contract tower closures. Senators Schumer and Gillibrand noted that the appropriation is more than enough to both cancel furloughs and prevent tower closures, and pressed for the official decision to keep Ithaca-Tompkins and Griffiss Int’l Airport towers open.
“The contract towers at Ithaca-Tompkins and Griffiss International are simply too important to their regions’ economies and security to shut down. Thankfully Congress has passed the necessary funding and given the necessary flexibility to avoid these painful closures—but we need a guarantee from the feds that they will use the funding as we prescribed,” said Senator Schumer. “This is the last step, and we are urging Secretary LaHood and FAA Administrator Huerta to exercise their ability to stave off these closures, as was the intent of those of us who passed the bill.”
“There should be no question that the control towers at Ithaca-Tompkins and Griffis International absolutely must remain open and fully operational,” Senator Gillibrand said. “The FAA now has the flexibility they need to keep these airports up and running, and there should be no more delay in taking the next step to keep them open. Our economy and our security relies on it.”
The Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013 allows the DOT to transfer $253 million from its Airport Improvement Program to operations, to keep air traffic controllers on the job and prevent unnecessary travel delays. The appropriation is more than enough funding to reverse all the controller’s furloughs and keep the 149 contract towers operating. Although the legislation does not mandate how the DOT spends the appropriation, the amount of funding left over after completely cancelling the furloughs is enough to keep the contract towers program running. Furthermore, allowing the closings to take place despite the funding would be in direct contradiction with the stated purpose of the bill—to prevent significant delays and ensure safe and efficient air travel.
Previous to passage of the legislation, the sequester mandated the FAA automatically cut $637 million from their operations this year. To adhere to these cuts, they were cutting approximately $50 million from the Federal Contract Tower Program. The Administration had planned to withdraw funding for contractors that staff control towers at some 149 small airports. An FAA Contract Tower is a privately-run control tower that receives a federal subsidy from the FAA.
The Senators highlighted that both the Ithaca-Tompkins Airport and Griffiss International Airport are essential to their local communities. The Ithaca-Tompkins Airport is the only tower in New York State slated to close that runs full commercial service. A reduction or loss of this service for the Ithaca-Tompkins Airport will have a significant adverse economic impact on the regional economy, where an estimated $1 billion each year is infused into the New York State economy by the 20,000 students of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3). Together, Cornell, Ithaca College, and TC3 employ 11,500 people and generate $2.5 billion in annual economic activity. However, Tompkins County is geographically isolated; it is not near an interstate highway or passenger rail system. As a result, the Ithaca-Tompkins airport is of significant importance. It is the primary means of mobility and access for faculty, students, researchers, entrepreneurs, customers, and investors.
The Griffiss tower is critical for our nation’s security and economy. The Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, U.S. Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve have utilized Griffiss as a staging base for disaster relief operations, including 9-11, and continue using it in their emergency response planning for the entire New England, New York City and Long Island region. This airport directly improves the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Military, supporting their primary mission to ensure the safety and security of our nation.
Commercial aviation provides more than 10 million jobs in the United States and helps drive over $1 trillion in economic activity in the country each year. Organizations, trade groups and union groups, such as the Air Line Pilots Association, have pointed to the negative impacts that furloughs have on employees and consumers.
A copy of the Senators’ letters to Secretary LaHood and FAA Administrator Huerta appear below:
Dear Secretary LaHood and Administrator Huerta:
As you know, Congress recently passed legislation giving the Secretary of Transportation the flexibility needed to avert air traffic controller furloughs and contract tower closures. We urge you to ensure that in addition to ending furloughs for 47,000 FAA employees, the agency also end the planned closure of the Ithaca-Tompkins and Griffiss International contract towers. We strongly believe this legislation gives FAA the flexibility and funding it needs to accomplish this goal.
Stakeholders in the Tompkins County New York region have expressed serious concerns that the impact to community, way of life, economy and education have not been considered as a factor in the proposed closures. Some of their major concerns include the fact that: of the NYS airports slated to lose towers services, Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport, is the only airport that offers commercial service, and the loss of their tower presents additional challenges. Restrictions on airspace occupancy without a tower will lead to delays in the departures and arrivals of flights. Concerns have been raised that these factors lead to customer dissatisfaction, and coupled with perceptions of threats to safety will lead to reduced bookings, and pose real threat to the future of commercial service. Airport and County Management have worked diligently throughout the years to procure carriers and the loss of this service would irrevocable.
In a geographically isolated region, with no access to major thoroughfares, the airport is the life blood of the community, and its economic vitality. Tompkins County consistently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in New York due to a varied and strong economy that includes tourism, high-tech industry, preeminent educational institutions and more. All of these industries are closely tied to the availability of reliable commercial air service. Without the availability of air service Cornell and Ithaca College will be hamstrung to recruit and retain the high caliber world renowned researchers and faculty it depends upon. High-tech businesses conducting international commerce could suffer, and a major expansion has already been suspended indefinitely as a result.
The Griffiss tower is critical for our nation’s security and economy. The Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, U.S. Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve have utilized Griffiss as a staging base for disaster relief operations and continue using it in their emergency response planning for the entire New England, New York City and Long Island region. This airport directly improves the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Military, supporting their primary mission to ensure the safety and security of our nation.
In short, we strongly urge the FAA to use the legislation that passed Congress last week to fully fund the contract tower program. By providing up to $253 million in funding authority – far above the amount required to prevent furloughs – Congressional intent is clear: FAA should prevent the slated closure of the Ithaca-Thompkins and Griffiss International contract towers by fully funding the contract tower program for the rest of the fiscal year.