Merkley, Wyden urge FAA to implement and improve Airport Contract Tower Program

The program would benefit the eight contract towers across Oregon

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden are urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to implement a provision in this year’s FAA spending bill that would allow airports that utilize the contract tower program to become eligible for Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants from the small airport fund.

In a bipartisan letter to FAA Acting Administrator Daniel K. Ewells, Merkley, Wyden and 33 other senators stressed that this provision will enhance air traffic safety at small, rural airports—such as Oregon’s contract towers in Pendleton, Redmond, Klamath Falls, Aurora, Troutdale Salem, North Bend, and Medford.

“Not only do these contract towers provide an important safety service, but they do it in a very cost-effective manner,” the Senators wrote. “It is Congress’s clear intent that tower construction, improvement, and related equipment should be given priority when deciding which projects should receive grants from the small airport fund.”

In addition to Senators Merkley and Wyden, the letter was signed by Senators Cortez Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev) Jerry Moran (R-Kan), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), James Risch (R-Idaho), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Doug Jones (R-Ala.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

The full letter can be found below.

Dear Acting Administrator Elwell:

As you begin implementing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018, we would like to draw your attention to section 152 of that Act.  Section 152 authorizes you to make AIP grants from the small airport fund to an airport participating in the contract tower program for the purpose of constructing or improving its air traffic control tower and for the acquisition and installation of related equipment.

The contract tower program has been in place for over 30 years.  Now there are 256 airports in 46 states that participate in this program.   The program consistently receives high marks for customer service from aviation users (pilots, airlines, FBOs, flight schools and corporate flight departments).  Without it, people living and traveling to our small communities and rural areas would be without the important safety benefits that air traffic control provides.

Not only do these contract towers provide an important safety service, but they do it in a very cost-effective manner.  This is demonstrated by the fact that contract towers handle approximately 29 percent of all U.S. air traffic control tower operations, but account for just 11 percent of FAA’s overall budget allotted to such operations.  This means that the contract tower program saves the FAA and tax payers approximately $200 million per year and $2 billion over 10 years.

In addition to the safety and financial benefits, the contract tower program plays a key role in connecting rural communities to the national air transportation system, helps airports retain and develop commercial air service, promotes economic development and job creation, provides significant support for military readiness and training as well as for disaster relief, homeland security, and law enforcement operations.

For all these reasons, the contract tower program enjoys widespread support in the Congress. That is why Congress included section 152, as well as other provisions to boost the contract tower program, in the FAA Reauthorization Act.  It is important to note that this provision authorizing small airport funds for tower construction and improvement was placed in subsection (d) of section 47116 of the United States Code.  Subsection (d) is entitled “Priority Consideration for Certain Projects.”  This provision could have been placed in section 47124 but it was placed in subsection 47116(d) instead precisely because Congress wanted air traffic control tower construction and improvement projects to receive priority consideration for grants from the small airport fund.   It is therefore Congress’s clear intent that tower construction, improvement, and related equipment should be given priority when deciding which projects should receive grants from the small airport fund.  Priority consideration for these projects is fully justified in light of the safety, financial, and other benefits that these towers provide at small airports and in rural areas.

We expect FAA to follow congressional intent in implementing this important provision that will enhance air traffic safety at smaller and rural airports throughout the country, including utilizing the benefit/cost ratios for new airport applicants/candidates that FAA submitted to Congress in April, 2018.

In this connection, we would like you to explain to us how the FAA will revise its National Priority Ranking and related order to ensure that funding for air traffic control tower construction, improvements, and related equipment receive the priority intended in the law.  In addition, we request that, after the end of this fiscal year, you provide us with a list of the airports that requested money from the small airport fund for tower construction, improvement, or related equipment, a list of those airports that received such funds for that purpose, and a statement explaining why airports did not receive such funding even though they requested it.

We appreciate your timely attention to this matter and look forward to continuing to work with you in a constructive manner on this important issue.