By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Putting off one of the most high-profile consequences of the broad U.S. "sequester" budget cuts, the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday delayed plans to close air-traffic control towers at 149 smaller airports.
The FAA, which oversees the nation's air-traffic system, said it would keep funding the towers until June 15 in order to resolve legal challenges brought by airports.
"This has been a complex process and we need to get this right," Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement.
The tower closures had prompted a fierce backlash from industry groups and some lawmakers, who accused the Obama administration of jeopardizing air safety in order to build political pressure to rescind $85 billion in spending cuts, known as the sequester, that kicked in on March 1.
The FAA must trim roughly 10 percent of its budget by the end of the September 30 fiscal year. The tower closures, which would have started on Sunday, were part of that effort.
With the towers closed, pilots at those facilities would have to coordinate takeoffs and landings on their own. The FAA said the decision would not compromise safety because the smaller airports handle only about 1 percent of commercial air traffic.
But industry officials said the FAA's decision would inevitably create more safety risks by removing much-needed supervisors where all sorts of aircraft, from propeller-driven student planes to military jets, share the same airspace.
Several airports filed legal challenges arguing that the FAA had bypassed its own safety and environmental review process.
"For us, it really is good news. We've got some time to continue to work out the problem," said Spokane, Washington, airport manager Larry Krauter, who was one of the first to take legal action.
Those airports will now have several months to find a solution - either through negotiation with the FAA or through Congress.
Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran, who fought to exempt the control towers from the sequester in March, said he would introduce legislation next week with Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal that would prevent the Transportation Department from closing any towers.
The FAA will have to look elsewhere to find at least part of the $45 million to $50 million in savings it would have realized by closing the control towers this month.
About one-third of the airports that would have lost their controllers had planned to keep them open with local funds, the FAA said.
The agency must find a total of $627 million in savings from its annual budget of about $16 billion.
The agency already plans to force most of its 47,000 employees, including traffic controllers, to take unpaid time off. That could lead at times to flight delays of up to 90 minutes at major hubs, LaHood has warned.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Ros Krasny and Peter Cooney)