After weeks of uncertainty, administrators, pilots and businesses connected with Waukegan Regional Airport can exhale, for now.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Friday the Federal Aviation Administration will continue funding to keep the contract control towers open at Waukegan and 148 other small airports.
The towers were slated to lose funding June 15 as part of the so-called sequester budget cuts. Now revenues are guaranteed through the end of the federal fiscal year Sept. 30.
"I'm very relieved," Waukegan Regional Airport Manager Jim Stanczak said.
With 50,000 operations annually, allowing pilots to freelance landings and takeoffs was hazardous at best, Stanczak said. The airport serves a wide range of users from corporate jets belonging to international pharmaceutical companies based in the suburbs to two-seaters to aircraft with VIPs destined for nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Center.
"The aviation community knew what a bad idea it was in terms of safety and efficiency. Some airports can get by, but others like ours have a mixed bag and serve a lot of purposes," said Stanczak, a former U.S. Navy pilot.
The sequester also led to air traffic controller furloughs, which raised such a public outcry after significant flight delays that Congress freed up $253 million in previously allocated FAA funds to pay the controllers in April. Some additional revenues were available for the towers, but the FAA held off making a decision until this week despite pressure from affected lawmakers including Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, a Deerfield Democrat.
Kirk in a statement said the announcement was important "not only for the safety of our regional airports, but also for the role they play as economic engines."
Contract towers fall under FAA rules and in most cases are funded by the agency but operated by private contractors.
Other Illinois towers spared in the decision include St. Louis Regional Airport, Central Illinois Regional Airport, Decatur Airport, and Southern Illinois Airport. The FAA also announced this week it would spare overnight closings of the tower at Midway International Airport.
But the reprieve isn't forever. Budget cuts mandated in the sequester deal remain in effect.
And that means as the appropriations process for fiscal year 2014 ramps up, Congress will have to grapple with issues like furloughs and tower closings again.
The uncertainty of this spring may pay off in that airport supporters are galvanized now, Stanczak said.
"It was a lot of work and a lot of telephone calls and emailing and meetings -- but it prepares you for the future -- you never know what the future holds."