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Columbia airport manager optimistic about staffing of tower

Federal legislation gives FAA latitude to keep air-traffic controllers on duty.
Thursday, May 2, 2013 | 4:58 p.m. CDT; updated 7:16 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 3, 2013

COLUMBIA — Columbia Regional Airport Manager Don Elliot expressed confidence on Thursday that the air traffic control tower at the airport will remain open.

"I believe the tower will stay open," Elliot said, noting that he has not received official notification from the Federal Aviation Administration. "This has been nothing but a political game of chicken, between the Congress and the executive branch. This has all been a political game played out on the local level. I never actually thought they would close the tower."

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro in Kansas City said the FAA hasn't decided on what direction the agency takes after the bill known as Reducing of Flight Delays Act was signed into law by President Obama on Wednesday. The law allows the FAA to reallocate $253 million from within the agency's budget to keep 149 towers staffed and open.

The Columbia Regional Airport tower was slated to close June 15 due to sequestration cuts from the federal government.

"All 0f the information is coming from Washington," Molinaro said. "I don't know anything except that employee furloughs have been suspended and we have returned to regular staffing."

Steve Walsh, spokesman for 4th District Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, said this is not a bailout for the agency. Hartzler joined 360 of her U.S. House colleagues in voting in favor of the bill, while 41 representatives voted against it. Walsh said the legislation only gives the agency the authority to tweak its budget.

"This is not new money, but money that was already in their budget," Walsh said. "What this bill gives them is the authority to instead of cutting the airport control towers, to make those cuts elsewhere within their budget."

Walsh said that though the language of the House's legislation encouraged the FAA to keep the towers open, the bill still gives the FAA authority on whether or not to the close the airport tower.

"We recognize that closing these towers would be the wrong thing to do, that keeping them open is cost-effective," Walsh said. "We want the FAA to do the right thing for the citizens who depend on these towers, like the one at Columbia Regional Airport." 

If the FAA were to decide to close the tower, Elliot said he would look for other ways to keep the tower open. 

"I am not willing to give up that last layer of security, and for us that last layer of security are the staff in the tower," Elliot said.


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