Jan. 03--WEST BAY -- Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) officials will be keeping an eye on Washington in the next few weeks as funding for the airport's control tower remains in congressional limbo.
As it stands now, however, continued funding is looking good for the Federal Aviation Administration's contract tower program, in which the airport participates.
"Right now, it looks like things are moving forward," said ECP Director Parker McClellan, noting language in both the Senate and House budget bills in support of the program, which costs about $150 million annually. "But there's still that level of uncertainty until all the votes are in."
When Congress reconvenes next week, the House and Senate will be working to hammer out a budget agreement before Jan. 15, which marks the expiration of the current continuing budget resolution.
The airport would be at risk of losing about $600,000 for tower operations annually if the program is cut from the U.S. Department of Transportation budget.
More than 250 airports in 46 states participate in the FAA's contract tower program, which is designed to promote aviation safety at smaller airports such as ECP. In Florida, 26 airports participate in the program, and ECP has the only active contract tower in the Panhandle.
As a member of the U.S. Contract Tower Association policy board, McClellan has been working to encourage federal lawmakers to support the program.
"We have continued discussions with Congressman (Steve) Southerland's office, Sen. (Bill) Nelson's office, and Sen. (Marco) Rubio's office," McClellan said. "They're all very well aware of the importance of the contract tower program, especially to this airport."
If the line item remains in the budget, the program would be funded for another year, but funding in the future is still uncertain.
"We are good for the next year or so," said McClellan, who noted different funding opportunities may need to be explored beyond next year. "The Contract Tower Association is working with the FAA on the future of the whole contract tower program and the direction it needs to go."
While ECP owns the tower and all of its equipment, the FAA is responsible for overseeing operations.
"There's a continued effort with the Contract Tower Association and the FAA to fully fund this effort," McClellan said. "We think it's very important for this community that there is an air traffic control tower."
Copyright 2014 - The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
The associations have asked Congress for $136.1 million for the fully funded contract towers as well as $10.35 million authorized for the continuation of the Contact Tower Cost-sharing Program.
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