Saying it needs time to deal with legal challenges, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Friday that it was delaying plans to close air traffic control towers at 149 smaller airports, including ones in Anoka County and St. Cloud.

The airport towers were scheduled to close over four weeks beginning Sunday, but the agency now says it will stop funding all of the towers June 15 and close them unless local airports or communities pay to keep them open.

“What I read into it is they’re really trying to buy some extra time for airports that are interested,” said William Towle, director of the St. Cloud Regional Airport.

The St. Cloud airport is looking at whether the city can fund its control tower, but “it’s highly unlikely,” Towle said.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission, which operates the Anoka County-Blaine Airport, has spent millions building and maintaining the tower.

“We have no plans at this time to get into the business of directly funding air traffic control services,” Airports Commission spokesman Patrick Hogan said Friday.

The FAA says 50 airports or communities elsewhere in the nation have indicated they may fund tower operations themselves. The agency said it needs to halt federal funding of the towers to cope with a $637 million spending cut triggered by the federal budget dispute.

When the FAA announced the closings last month, Administrator Michael Huerta said, “We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety.”

But some airports accused the agency of not following proper procedures in shutting down the towers.

St. Cloud may join suit

Towle said St. Cloud was mulling joining a secondary airport in Spokane in suing the FAA. That airport said the agency has a safety management system “whose very purpose is to assess the risks associated with significant changes to air traffic procedures ... which the FAA has entirely failed to apply.”

In announcing the delay, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Friday that the agency would consult with airports on ways to mitigate risk.

“This has been a complex process and we need to get this right,” LaHood said. “We will use this additional time to make sure communities and pilots understand the changes at their local airports.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican whose district includes the Anoka County and St. Cloud airports, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, opposed their closings.

“This announcement will give St. Cloud and Anoka more time to work on plans for their towers and airports, and I will continue to fight to ensure that all of Minnesota’s airports can keep passengers and our skies safe,” Klobuchar said Friday.

Anoka County and St. Cloud Regional airports would remain open even without staffed control towers. Pilots would be expected to play a bigger role in landings and takeoffs, and controllers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport could take on more work.

Anoka County is a major reliever airport for MSP and handles a large number of corporate aircraft, some of which might opt to use the larger airport. St. Cloud offers limited commercial air service in addition to providing facilities for private and corporate aircraft.