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US cancels plan to close control towers at smaller airports

The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday canceled budget-driven plans to close 149 air traffic control towers at smaller U.S. airports, two weeks after Congress passed legislation to end air traffic controller furloughs that had delayed flights.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said federal officials determined the legislation gave the FAA enough flexibility to keep funding the towers, which had been scheduled to be shut down in June to save money.

"This victory is thanks to a bipartisan coalition of senators and congressmen and women who came together to demonstrate that there are more responsible ways to cut spending than by compromising safety," Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said in a statement welcoming the decision.

The White House announced plans for both the furloughs and the tower closures earlier this year to meet automatic spending cuts required by Congress under the so-called sequestration law aimed at reducing the U.S. budget deficit.

Congress sprang into action after the rolling FAA furloughs caused delays at major airports across the United States.

At the time, Moran insisted the legislation also contained flexibility for FAA to transfer funds to keep the control towers open, but Transportation Department officials said they needed to review it before making a decision.

Most of the United States' 5,000 publicly used airports don't have air traffic control towers.

In addition to 292 operated by the FAA, another 251 are operated by three private companies in public-private partnership called the FAA Contract Tower Program.

The FAA originally planned to shut down 189 of the contract towers. It trimmed the list to 149 in response to pressure from lawmakers who said the closures would hurt local economies and jeopardize safety.

The targeted towers all had fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings or 10,000 commercial flights per year. They cater to corporate jets and individuals with private planes. Many also house flight schools, serve as hubs for smaller airlines or provide relief capacity for larger airports nearby.

The FAA will also use new funding flexibility to shift $10 million toward reducing cuts and delays in moving to a new satellite-based air traffic control program, LaHood said.

Another $11 million will be used to partially restore support of infrastructure in the national airspace system.