A plan to close 149 air-traffic control towers has galvanized opposition like few other moves under U.S. automatic budget cuts, uniting lawmakers with businesses, unions and an advocacy group with Harrison Ford in its corner.
The fight, involving about $40 million of this year's $85 billion in cuts in a process known as sequestration, reflects how broadly the proposed closings cut across rural districts represented by lawmakers who, regardless of party affiliation, are elected to serve local interests.
The closings will affect 38 of the 50 U.S. states. In New York, there are two towers on the Federal Aviation Administration closure list -- at Tompkins Regional Airport in Ithaca and Griffiss Airport in Rome.
"You try to shut down the towers, and you're going to have a fight on your hands," said Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Lilly and other analysts say the tenacious response offers a glimpse of what's to come, as the impact of sequestration affects other programs with their own strong supporters. The automatic cuts are the penalty agreed to by President Barack Obama and Congress in failed debt-reduction talks.
"It's the most visible symbol of bad public policy kicking in," said capital lobbyist Jim Dyer, a former Republican staff director of House Appropriations. "And as the year goes on, it's going to get worse." HARRISON FORD
The towers are operated by contractors to the Federal Aviation Administration and are located mostly at small airports serving private aircraft.
They have powerful outside advocates, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick, Md. Its 400,000 members include Ford, the star of movies including "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the newly released "42."
"General aviation is more than guys in corporate aircraft," said Ford, who flies his own single-engine planes and a twin-engine jet. "It's police and fire services. It's EMS. It's a guy flying his fish to market. It's tractor parts getting to a rancher or a farmer. It's a broad range of businesses that are affected."
Ford, 70, has spoken at AOPA conventions and dinners, and served as a spokesman for the group's General Aviation Serves America campaign. He is a member of the AOPA Foundation's Hat in the Ring club, whose members donate at least $1,000 a year to support initiatives like pilot safety and preserving airports, according to the group's website.