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Article updated: 4/26/2013 6:00 PM

Congress ends controller furloughs; towers still in question

By Marni Pyke

It's good news for travelers at O'Hare and Midway International Airports as Congress took rare bipartisan action Friday ending furloughs for air traffic controllers. But whether the legislation will reprieve local towers on the chopping block is in doubt.

The House voted Friday 361-41 to let the Federal Aviation Administration use up to $253 million from airport improvement and other accounts to end the furloughs for the controllers through the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year. The Senate approved the measure Thursday.

The FAA said there had been at least 863 flights delayed on Wednesday "attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough."

The Terminal Radar Approach Control facility in Elgin along with others across the country was impacted by absent controllers resulting in long waits Wednesday and Thursday morning. The Elgin facility handles aircraft about five miles from O'Hare to 40 miles out.

Dan Carrico, a controller at the O'Hare tower and a NATCA official, noted that the furloughs aren't over -- yet.

"The legislation hasn't been signed into law so we're anxiously awaiting that. We're still technically furloughed," he pointed out. "At Chicago we run some of the most complex congested air space in the country, so we're looking forward to getting back to full speed."

The last-minute funding could also be used to prevent the closure of air-traffic control towers at smaller airports, including Waukegan Regional Airport. The FAA has said it will shut the facilities for its share of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts -- known as the sequester -- that took effect last month at numerous government agencies.

Waukegan's tower is set to close May 5; it's among 149 contract towers across the country picked to lose funding. Airport manager Jim Stanczak said he's anxiously awaiting word on the airport's future. With 50,000 flights a year operating out of the airfield, which serves numerous corporate clients, it's too busy to run unstaffed without risking an accident, Stanczak said.

"We can't give up the battle," he said. "I was hoping when I woke this morning the legislation would include the contract towers but that wasn't the case."

Some senators including Republican Mark Kirk are writing the FAA to ask that funding be restored for the towers. Contract towers operate under FAA rules but with private contractors paid by the government.

Officials estimate it would cost slightly more than $200 million to restore air traffic controllers to full staffing, and an additional $50 million to keep the smaller towers open. The FAA has discretion as to how it allocates the funds, officials said.

Congressman Dan Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said he's also concerned about nighttime closures at Midway's tower. "Today I voted in support of legislation that clearly provides the FAA with the ability to move money from one account to another so that the air traffic controller furloughs can end," Lipinski said.

"But not all issues with air travel delays have been settled. I am still waiting for the FAA to provide assurances that the Midway tower will not face nighttime closure," he added.

Republicans accused the Obama administration of purposely furloughing the controllers to raise public pressure on Congress to lift the spending cuts. The White House and Democrats have argued that, by law, the administration has little maneuverability in deciding where the cuts fall.

"I am happy that our people are no longer pawns in this game of politics," said Bryan Zilonis, a controller at the Chicago Center operations facility in Aurora and a National Air Traffic Controllers Association official. "I am saddened that so many others will suffer due to the irresponsible way sequestration was designed to be painful."

Democrats said Friday that Congress should work on legislation lifting all of the cuts, which they noted have also caused reductions in Head Start preschool programs, benefits for the long-term unemployed and medical research.

Ÿ Daily Herald Wire Services contributed to this report.

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