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FAA delays closure of air traffic control towers

The Federal Aviation Administration, hitting pause on a high-profile sequester cut, announced Friday that it would delay previously planned closures for 149 air traffic control towers at small airports. 

The FAA announced that it would delay the implementation until June 15, while it tries to resolve "multiple legal challenges" to the decision. Trade groups representing companies that operate the towers under contract for FAA filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court in Washington.

"This has been a complex process and we need to get this right," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Safety is our top priority. We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports." 

The FAA indicated that, while it still plans to stop funding the towers in June, some could continue to operate under funding from various airport authorities. The agency says about 50 airport operators and communities have indicated they may want to pay for operation of the towers themselves, and more time is needed to work out those details.

The initial decision in March to shutter the 149 towers was met with criticism from lawmakers whose districts include small airports that would be affected. Some questioned whether the closures could be avoided. 

The closure process was set to start this Sunday. But the FAA said Friday that instead of automatically shutting the towers down, the agency will instead cut off funding on June 15 -- "and will close the facilities unless the airports decide to continue operations as a nonfederal contract tower." 

The decision did not satisfy some lawmakers. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said he would be co-sponsoring legislation to bar the department from closing the towers. 

"While airports and air travelers across the country are breathing a sigh of relief, the Department of Transportation's decision to delay the closing of air traffic control towers is not a solution," he said. 

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. But the FAA has long been under pressure from members of Congress to open new towers at airports in their states, not to close them.

While the FAA indicates it will go through with the funding cuts, the decision marks the latest announcement showing the administration reconsidering a sequester cut. Following threats to furlough workers and cut their hours, some agencies have delayed implementing those cuts. 

FAA has previously said the tower closures are necessary to accommodate automatic spending cuts. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.