Former Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., a critic of the contract tower program, said he refused to allow lawmakers to insert provisions into bills requiring the FAA to pay for new control towers at airports in their districts when he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"We couldn't always stop it in all instances in the appropriations process, particularly when a bill comes from the Senate and it has a designation of funding for a particular tower," Oberstar said.
Last month, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., repeatedly tried to hold up final passage of a bill to prevent a government shutdown as he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Democrats to allow a vote on his plan for erasing most of the planned closures of towers operated contract controllers.
Next week, Moran and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., plan to introduce a bill to require the FAA to resume operations at the 24 towers scheduled for closure on Sunday and to prohibit the agency from shutting down any more towers after that.
The measure has the support of the American Association of Airport Executives and its affiliate organization, the U.S. Contract Tower Association, which represent the companies that operate contract towers. The associations filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Thursday seeking to block the FAA from taking action. Several airports around the country also have filed their own suits.
The suit contends that the FAA didn't follow its own procedures for shutting down the airport towers, 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.
"The administration has decided to make tower closures the poster child of sequestration (automatic spending cuts)," J. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the contract tower association said. "We believe there are other ways they could have skinned this cat."
But Oberstar said regional air traffic control facilities can handle most of needs of aircraft arriving and departing small airports.
"The hoopla about 149 towers being cut I think is misplaced," he said. "I'm rather skeptical about those crying wolf."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a joint statement Thursday that the FAA is conducting "a robust safety review and monitoring process to identify any hazards, and develop appropriate risk mitigations" associated with the tower closures.
"While we make difficult budget decisions, safety is not up for negotiation," the statement said.
Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.