Air-traffic control towers get 2-month reprieve

Sequester closures were to begin Sunday at 149 sites

LOS ANGELES — The 149 air-traffic control towers scheduled to be shut down Sunday because federal budget cuts will be kept open for two more months, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday.

The extension, through June 15, gives officials two months to deal with lawsuits regarding the closure, according to a statement issued by the agency.

The FAA will also review "appropriate risk mitigations" and consult with airports and operators.

The FAA had announced in March that it would close as many as 238 towers as part of mandatory federal budget cuts. The agency must cut $637 million by Sept. 30 as part of $85 billion in cuts across the government. "This has been a complex process, and we need to get this right," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. "Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."

Contract towers, which are certified by the FAA but not run by the government, make up nearly half of the nation's towers and handle about 30 percent of the air traffic.

This week, the group that represents the contract towers sued the FAA to postpone the closures and asked the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to impose an emergency stay. "The decision to shutter these critical air-traffic control facilities on such an unprecedented and wide-scale basis raises serious concerns about safety," said Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, in a statement.

The FAA said in March it would stop funding 149 contract towers across the country. A four-week closure process was scheduled to begin Sunday.

Those closures will now begin June 15, unless individual airports decide to staff and fund the towers themselves. About one-third of the 149 towers said they may do that, the Transportation Department said.

The closure will be the largest contract tower closure in history: Since the program's start in 1982, only three towers have closed, according to the U.S. Contract Tower Association.

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