The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday afternoon that it will delay the closure of all 149 federal contract air traffic control towers — including five in Maryland — until June 15.
The announcement came just two days before the first of the towers was scheduled to be shuttered as part of across-the-board federal budget cuts approved by Congress. The FAA is required to cut $637 million from its $16 billion budget by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The extension will allow the agency to deal with multiple lawsuits, continue consulting with airports and review safety issues, the FAA said in its statement.
Under the phased, monthlong closure schedule, Martin State Airport in Baltimore County, Frederick Municipal Airport and Easton/Newnam Field in Easton had been ordered to close April 21. Hagerstown Regional Airport and Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Airport were to follow on May 5.
"This gives us a little more breathing room to figure something out," said Easton manager Mike Henry, who earlier in the day delivered a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley's office asking for financial help to keep the tower open until Sept. 30. "The can got kicked down the road, but we'll take it."
The Maryland Aviation Administration hailed the delay as a "sensible, correct decision … that will allow the critical work to go on."
"This announcement will allow the FAA to address the questions and concerns raised across the nation and across the industry," said MAA spokesman Jonathan Dean.
Officials at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport expressed concern that closures might result in congestion as private pilots opted for runways supervised by air traffic controllers rather than self-regulated takeoffs and landings at the smaller airports.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said safety concerns led to the postponement.
"This has been a complex process, and we need to get this right," LaHood said. "We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports."
About 750 to 1,100 controllers and supervisors were expected to lose their jobs, according to the U.S. Contract Tower Association. The workers are hired by private companies with FAA contracts to operate towers at small and mid-sized airports.
On Thursday, the Contract Tower Association and the American Association of Airport Executives filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit against the FAA, accusing the agency of singling out the contract towers and ignoring safety concerns.
"No justifiable reason exists to single out the contract tower program and make it the administration's poster child for sequestration cuts," said Kenneth Quinn, a lawyer for the two industry groups. "Nor should such fundamental changes occur without proper notice, comment, and analyses."
About 50 airport authorities and other interested parties have told the FAA that they are prepared to pay for tower operations. This additional time will allow the FAA to help smooth the transition.
Henry said the four Maryland towers run by local governments all face the same fiscal constraints and are not in a position to take on the added cost.
"We're looking at every option on the table and some that are under the table," Henry said jokingly. "We're not giving up."