Southwest Georgia Regional Airport tower (April 5, 2013).
ALBANY, Ga. — U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, praised the passage of a bill Friday that he believes will help the Federal Aviation Administration end employee furloughs that he says have caused nearly four times the normal delays for airline passengers.
The Senate had unanimously voted for the plan late Thursday and the House approved it by a 361-41 vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama plans to sign the legislation.
The legislation will give the Department of Transportation flexibility to use about $250 million in unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration who had been furloughed.
Congressional approval of the bill, barely four pages long, came as lawmakers looked to fly out of Washington for a week-long recess. It was not clear how quickly the air delays will ease once the bill is enacted.
Bishop said the bill's passage gives hope to the cities like Albany and Macon that an alternative can be found to keep their towers open.
"This bill will give the secretary of transportation the flexibility to stop the closure of the 149 identified contract towers across the country," Bishop said. "As I and those in my district can attest, these contract towers, such as the ones in Albany and in Macon, play an important role in serving as a link between rural communities and the larger aviation network. Now that we have provided the Department of Transportation with the tools it needs to prevent FAA furloughs and contract tower closures, I am hopeful for a clearing of commercial traffic in the near future."
Officials in Albany have been mulling the use of local tax dollars to fund the tower operations. In Macon, city leaders voted to join a lawsuit filed against the FAA by several of the 149 cities where contract towers are set to be closed.
Albany City Manager James Taylor said that he's working with Airport Director Yvette Aehle and others to understand what the passage of the law means for Albany.
"We're just not certain at this point what it means for us," Taylor said. "I know that we don't think it gets us out of the woods, but we're not certain. We're going to continue to prepare to act if nothing changes."
Taylor also said that City Attorney Nathan Davis is reviewing his request to consider joining Macon and the other cities in the litigation against the FAA.
In an email obtained by The Albany Herald from the city's lobbyist Marion Turner to Albany city officials, Turner explained that the bill does not contain a provision offered by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, that would have specifically barred the FAA from closing the contract towers. It does, however, give the FAA the ability to shift where the cuts will be made, possibly keeping some or all of the towers open.
On Monday, the Albany Aviation Commission recommended that the City Commission fund the tower for one year, a move that would cost $500,000.
For Bishop, the end of the furloughs can't come quick enough.
"Currently, the FAA is furloughing almost 10 percent of its air traffic controller workforce on a daily basis. Since the furloughs began on Sunday through Wednesday this week, the number of air travel delays has totaled 8,804, compared to 2,795 for the same time last week. These delays inconvenience passengers and cause serious economic disruptions throughout the entire country," Bishop said. "H.R. 1765 will provide the secretary of transportation with the flexibility the Department of Transportation needs to fix this problem without adding to the FAA's budget. The additional flexibility in this bill will also give the secretary the ability to restore the FAA's Contract Tower Program."