By Rich Pollack
Although Congress restored funding to the Federal Aviation Administration late last month to pay for air traffic controllers at major airports and avoid furloughs there, the fate of the tower at Boca Raton Airport — and 148 towers at small airports across the country — remains up in the air.
While the FAA now has enough money to cover the costs of tower operations at the small airports, it has not made it clear how those funds will be applied. As a result, Boca Raton airport officials are still operating under the assumption that funding could be discontinued as of June 15.
“At this point, we and all other 148 towers have begun a new campaign to lobby the FAA to fund the towers,” said Janet Sherr, director of landside operations for the Boca Raton Airport Authority.
At a meeting before Congress releasing funds to the FAA, the authority began the lengthy process of preparing to self-fund air traffic control tower operations, should a lawsuit and the latest round of lobbying efforts fail to restore funding.
While a decision on whether or not to seek alternative ways to pay for the tower operations will not come until after other avenues are exhausted, the authority, at its April meeting, authorized staff to begin seeking out qualified firms interested in taking over tower operation should federal funding evaporate due to government sequester cutbacks.
On the advice of legal counsel, however, the board stopped short of making a firm commitment to self fund tower operations, despite the efforts of one member, who said he was concerned about mixed messages being sent to the public.
During the recent meeting, authority member David Freudenberg ha asked that the authority provide the community with a clear statement of what it plans to do if the lawsuit and all lobbying efforts by local, state and federal officials are unsuccessful.
“There is a very clear message to the community that we are aware of the desire to keep the tower open but we’re still saying that the Boca Raton tower is on death row,” Freudenberg said.
“We owe it to the community to make it very, very clear – we must keep this tower open. It’s time for this board to direct staff to make it clear in their statements that this tower will not close and we should give staff the directive to do what is necessary to keep it open,” he said.
Before other authority members could respond to Freudenberg’s comments, however, authority attorney Dawn Meyers intervened suggesting that further discussions could be detrimental to the still pending lawsuit.
Meyers said that the board’s decision to take legal action and to proceed with the process of finding a private tower operator should other efforts fail, indicated the direction the panel was headed in.
“You have taken two assertive steps showing the community exactly what your intention and commitment is,” she said.
Board Chair Frank Feiler echoed the attorney’s comments.
“We couldn’t be any more decisive in the direction we’re moving forward in and in the steps we’re taking,” he said.
Authority member Cheryl Budd followed up on Feiler’s comments with a question to Meyers.
“In a hypothetical situation, if the authority had no legal recourse and no potential of funding from state and federal governments and we still wanted to go forward and keep the tower open, is there anything we would be doing that we’re not already doing?” she asked.
“Nothing,” Meyers said.
Earlier in the meeting, Meyers said that the decision to proceed with a two-step procurement process – which includes a request for qualifications from firms interested in operating the tower, followed by a request for proposals in the event that other efforts failed – did not commit the board to hiring any of the firms that applied.
“We must anticipate that potentially you may be in a position where you’ll have to choose whether or not to keep the tower open,” she said.
By Rich Pollack