Kevin James Shay THE GAZETTE
Sequester Punches Hole in Funding for Towers at Small Airports
March 29, 2013
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  • By Kevin James Shay

    Federal money will dry up in April, May

    Frederick Municipal Airport’s control tower is slated to close less than a year after it opened due to sequester budget cuts.

    With the Frederick Municipal Airport’s control tower slated to close less than a year after it opened due to sequester budget cuts, airport officials are working with federal and local leaders to try to restore federal funding.

    The Frederick site is the busiest general aviation airport in the state, with about 130,000 annual flight operations. Martin State Airport in the Baltimore area is second, with about 80,000 operations a year.

    General aviation operations mostly include takeoffs and landings by corporate jets and smaller private aircraft, although there are commercial operators at a few local airports.

    In economic effect, Frederick is second among the 35 public-use airports in Maryland with $110.8 million annually in business revenue, according to a study released this week by the Maryland Aviation Administration. Martin tops that list with revenue of $224.5 million.

    Frederick’s $5.3 million control tower opened as a tool that local officials believed would help increase corporate flights and general business activity at the airport. That’s why they are scratching their heads over the tower funding cutback.

    “There are some corporate entities that will not allow their aircraft to operate in a non-towered environment,” said Kevin Daugherty, manager of the Frederick airport.

    So, if corporate jets opt to go to a towered facility, such as at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Linthicum, that would translate to a “loss of revenue and jobs for the airport and businesses based at the [Frederick] airport,” Daugherty said.

    The situation also could affect flight schools, since student pilots are required by the FAA to conduct operations at a towered airport as part of their training. Frederick has two flight schools as well as numerous businesses that service planes, provide rentals and perform other services.

    Hagerstown looking to fund locally

    The control tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport — which ranks third in Maryland in annual revenue at $109.6 million — also is slated to lose federal funding May 5.

    Frederick, Martin, Easton and Salisbury airports are scheduled to lose funds for their towers as early as April 21.

    The federal cutbacks affect about 150 airports nationally as part of $637 million in FAA sequester cuts.

    Officials in Washington County are looking for local or state funding — perhaps even a combination — to keep the Hagerstown airport tower open, said James Jenkins, a county spokesman. That tower dates to 1973.

    “The control tower at Hagerstown Regional will remain open, just not with federal money, for now,” Jenkins said.

    Frederick is not looking for local funding of the roughly $600,000 it would take annually to operate its tower, Daugherty said.

    “We have not really explored that option as of yet,” Daugherty said. “Right now, we are focusing on working with our congressional delegation and local elected officials to restore the federal funding.”

    U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-6th District) of Potomac will continue to urge the FAA to find an alternative to cutting the federal funding for control towers, Will McDonald, a spokesman for Delaney, said on Thursday.

    “Unfortunately, much of sequestration has now become permanent for the fiscal year, and a number of critical programs were also impacted,” McDonald said. “We’re going to do what we can, but until we reach a long-term budget solution, it will be difficult.”

    Safety issue

    General aviation airports can operate without towers, but it is a safety issue, Daugherty said. If the tower is forced to close, the airport will have to return to sequencing its own traffic patterns without FAA controllers, he said.

    Pilots could rely on guidance from staffed FAA facilities or employ a common radio frequency to state their intention to take off or land.

    “Sequencing ourselves becomes quite problematic during peak times of the day with our high volume,” Daugherty said. “It is not uncommon for a single-engine aircraft or helicopter to be in the traffic pattern with a corporate jet. Also, we’ll be going back to Class E airspace, where [very high frequency] radios are not required. What makes this even worse is the spring and summer are our busiest times of the year.”

    Besides having corporate jets and private aircraft, Hagerstown has commercial flights. Allegiant Air offers twice-weekly, nonstop jet service to Orlando, Fla., with more than 15,000 passengers flying there last year. Sun Air also has daily flights to Dulles, Va.

    The airport also has more than a dozen businesses that service planes as well as a flight school. Airport tenant Sierra Nevada Corp. recently won a $43 million federal contract to build U.S. Border Patrol surveillance aircraft. All total, Hagerstown had more than 56,000 flight operations last year, the most in a decade, Jenkins said.

    Maryland’s 35 general-aviation airports directly and indirectly supported about 8,700 jobs last year, up 28 percent from 2005, according to state figures. The total estimate of $665.2 million in business revenue in 2012 was up 33 percent from 2005.