WASHINGTON - The closure of control towers at Tucson's Ryan Airfield and 148 other small airports, due to begin this weekend because of governmentwide spending cuts, are being delayed until mid-June, federal regulators announced Friday.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it needs more time to deal with legal challenges to the closures.
Also, about 50 airport authorities and other "stakeholders" have indicated they want to fund the operations of the towers themselves rather than see them shut down, and more time will be needed to work out those plans, the agency said.
However, the Tucson Airport Authority currently has no plans to fund the Ryan tower's operation, which costs about $750,000 a year, authority spokeswoman Katy Smith said.
The first 24 tower closures, including Ryan, were scheduled to begin Sunday, with the rest coming over the next few weeks. Obama administration officials have said the closures are necessary to accomplish automatic spending cuts required by Congress.
Despite the delay, the FAA said it will stop funding all 149 of the airport towers, which are operated by private contractors, on June 15. Under the new schedule, the closures will be implemented at once, rather than a gradual phase-in as had been planned.
Airport operators in several states, including Florida, Illinois and Washington state, and the U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represents the companies that operate contract towers, have filed lawsuits with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington seeking to halt the closures.
The suits contend that the closures violated a federal law meant to ensure major changes at airports do not erode safety, and unfairly targeted the program for an outsized share of the more than $600 million the agency is required to trim from its budget by the end of September.
Federal officials have insisted that the closures wouldn't affect safety. And there is evidence that with improving safety, some of the closures would make economic sense. It turns out that the FAA has been using 30-year-old data on aircraft collisions to justify the cost of operating many of the control towers, even though accident rates have improved significantly over that time.
Had the FAA used more current data, it's probable that some low-traffic airport towers operated by private contractors would no longer have met the agency's criteria for funding, industry officials say.
Star Assistant Business Editor David Wichner contributed to this report.