The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 27, 2013

Small state airports eye reprieves

Congress allows fund shifting; W.Va. Aeronautics Commission offers support

— Operators of three West Virginia airports whose air-traffic control towers have been threatened with closure by the Federal Aviation Administration are breathing a little easier today, with promising news arriving on two fronts.

Spurred on by worrisome flight delays caused by air traffic controller furloughs across the nation, Congress passed a measure that gives new latitude to the Transportation Department in shuffling funds around in the wake of spending cuts forced by the national budget impasse.

For small to midsized facilities, like Greenbrier Valley Airport in Maxwelton, the potentially good news revolves around the possibility that the FAA can shift funds to remove the closure threat from 149 control towers operated on a contract basis.

The FAA was required to cut $600 million in expenses by the sequester that kicked in when Congress failed to pass a budget.

Lawmakers expect the $253 million freed up by the legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller to enable the cancellation of further controller furloughs, although it was not readily apparent if the measure will halt FAA plans to cut off funding for the 149 towers slated for closure.

In a statement released following the Senate vote Thursday night, Rockefeller said, “By plugging a hole in the budget and providing the FAA with crucial funds to operate the air traffic control system, we will eliminate flight delays due to inadequate staffing and keep America moving.”

As a cautionary note, he added, “This does not fix all of the problems the FAA faces because of budget cuts, especially for contract towers in rural communities.”

Rockefeller pledged to continue to work on additional solutions.

Earlier in the day Thursday, however, the West Virginia Aeronautics Commission voted to support the state’s three threatened towers — at Greenbrier Valley, Wheeling and Parkersburg — with up to $100,000 in operating funds.

According to Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan, who attended the Aeronautics Commission’s quarterly meeting in Charleston, the vote to pledge the $100,000 as a 50/50 match to other funding sources originated with Paul A. Mattox Jr., West Virginia Secretary of Transportation.

“The Aeronautics Commission is kind of leaping into the fray with this commitment,” O’Sullivan said.

“Knowing that money is available eases the burden on airports and on the controllers who might otherwise be laid off and have to wait to discover their fate,” he added.

If needed, the Aeronautics Commission funding will kick in June 15 — the announced closure date for the three West Virginia airport towers — and will end Oct. 1, the date the new federal fiscal year begins.

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