COLUMBIA, Mo. - The nationwide furloughs for air traffic controllers are ending. Right now, the FAA is waiting for the president to sign the measure approved today by congress. The FAA forced controllers to take unpaid time off as part of the government-wide 85 billion dollars spending cut. The White House says the president will sign the legislation.
The cuts caused ten percent staffing reduction in control towers and led to hundreds of flight delays a day since Monday. The money included in the measure could also be used for other FAA operations like stopping control towers at the small airports around the country.
But air traffic controllers at the Columbia Regional Airport say they're still concerned. They tell ABC 17 News there is no language specifically mentioned in the bill that covers towers. Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler tells us they were able to find $253-million in airport improvement grant money that wasn't issued out yet. She says this money directly addresses the immediate concerns of the towers closing.
It's estimated it would cost a little more than $200-million to end the furloughs. Officials believe the rest of the money should be enough to keep the air traffic towers scheduled to close from doing just that. Hartzler tells us the money lawmakers were able to come up with does not give the FAA any good reasons to continue to keep the furloughs and close towers. She says this bill only shifts the funds to where the FAA can use it, not forces them to use it.
"I think it will be very hard pressed on their side to explain why they would be endangering the public and subjecting them to these long waiting lines," Representative Vicky Hartzler (MO-4) explains.
But the uncertainty of what's going to happen with the money still has some air traffic controllers worried. Columbia Regional's tower manager tells us if the tower closes the airspace gets downgraded. He says that means aircraft aren't required to have any radios and the chance for a disaster on a busy day increases.
"You're going to have the aircraft converging on one area, that's the airfield, and radar can not guarantee separation when they start merging that close so you need an eye on the ground," Columbia Region Airport traffic control tower manager LeRoy Welch explains.
Hartzler says this funding would only be good until the end of September. But they're going to continue trying to find the money.
"We are going to be looking for more opportunities like that as we go forward with the fiscal year next year and move forward with the budget to make sure there's enough funds to keep them open," Hartzler says.
Hartzler tells us even though this is a short term solution; it clearly shows the money can be found to fund towers in the long run. So the FAA shouldn't have a reason to do this again.