Lukas Johnson Charlotte Observer
Concord Airport Safety a Top Concern Without Control Tower
April 18, 2013
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  • Local representatives have until June 15 to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to restore funding to the air traffic control tower at Concord Regional Airport.

    After that, budget cuts stemming from the federal budget sequestration will close towers at 149 noncommercial airports nationwide.

    The Concord City Council last month agreed to pay an estimated $100,000 for a two-month extension to operate the tower beyond the anticipated closing. But the city says it won’t be able to fund the estimated $600,000 annual operating cost of the Concord tower without new revenues or a cost-sharing partnership.

    For weeks, Concord leaders have lobbied and coordinated with senators and congressmen to convince the FAA of the control tower’s importance to the region’s air safety and its economy. Concord leaders were among representatives from five airports nationally to plead their case in person to the FAA.

    Concord Aviation Director Rick Cloutier, City Council member John Sweat, Concord Mayor Scott Padgett and John Cox, CEO of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, visited Washington, D.C., March 9 to discuss the future of the tower with FAA representatives.

    Officials say because Concord Regional is one of the busiest airports in the state, and because of its influence on Charlotte-Douglas International’s airspace, it is crucial that the tower maintain a staff. The size and speed of planes that use Concord Regional, and its nearly 60,000 landings and takeoffs per year, add to that need.

    Charlotte-Douglas was ranked eighth nationwide in passenger traffic last year, according to numbers released this month by Airports Council International. Worldwide, it ranked 23rd in traveler numbers. The airport saw the most passenger traffic in the airport’s history last year, serving more than 41 million visitors.

    “They had no idea about our proximity to the Charlotte airspace,” said Cloutier. “…so we told them how it would impact our region, the motorsports industry and air safety.”

    The trip came four days after the FAA announced it would close 162 airport control towers nationwide. Concord also has formally appealed the closing. U.S. Reps. Rich Hudson, R-N.C., and Mel Watt, D-N.C., and Charlotte-Douglas International Airport Aviation Director Jerry Orr wrote to the FAA in support of keeping Concord’s tower operating.

    “Charlotte-Douglas International Airport can ill afford to lose the capacity supplied by (Concord Regional),” Orr wrote in his letter. “Since becoming a federal contract tower in 2001, (Concord Regional) … has helped maintain the utmost safety and efficiency in our busy airspace.”

    Tower fate up to feds

    Bills making their way through the U.S. House and Senate could restore federal funding to the control tower. But federal and local leaders aren’t getting their hopes up.

    “We’re working with our representatives, but now we’re kind of at the mercy of the political will at this time,” said Cloutier.

    U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., last week introduced a bill to require the FAA to continue operations at 24 towers scheduled for closure and to prohibit the agency from shutting down more towers.

    Hudson, whose 8th District includes Cabarrus County, is a co-sponsor of a separate bill that could restore federal tower funding.

    “If anyone looks at the facts, they would never close this tower,” Hudson said. “… We’re working with local elected officials, putting pressure on the FAA and looking to find a way to fix this through legislation.”

    Hudson said the tower closing could be devastating for all of Cabarrus County.

    “We could lose our tax base. We could lose revenue at the airport … ,” he said. “We stand to lose business opportunities – a lot of companies are located in that region because they have access to that airport – and folks traveling in and out of Charlotte-Douglas will see more congestion.”

    Even without a control tower, however, the Concord airport will remain open, said City Manager Brian Hiatt. It plays a critical role in the local economy, in regional economic development and in the national airspace system, Hiatt said.

    The city also will continue looking for ways to keep the tower funded.

    “It’s very much a political process right now,” Hiatt said, “ … and that bigger (federal) budget debate probably is going to have to be resolved before we see the resolution to this.”

    Hiatt said he thinks there’s enough support in Congress for the bills to pass, but he said local government sits low on the food chain in Washington.

    “We’re trying to determine locally a mechanism to keep the tower open should funding not be restored,” said Hiatt. “But we feel the proper response is at the federal level.”

    Economy of the airport

    Cloutier, who became Concord’s aviation director in 2012, oversees airport operations.

    “We are the fourth-busiest airport in the state …, and we are probably the No. 1 or 2 busiest general aviation airport in the Southeast region,” Cloutier said. “Our proximity to Charlotte also makes us a very important factor in the national airspace system.”

    Safety is key, but so is the $178million the airport pumps into the economy each year.

    “We cannot speculate on how large the economic impact (of the control tower closing) will be until it happens,” said Cloutier. “We know we will have operational loss, but until the time comes we won’t know how much.”

    The airport gets revenue from fuel sales, hangar sales and lease rates. All those revenues could decrease without a tower, because the airport might lose tenant aircraft and, as a result, handle fewer flight operations.

    But airport revenues don’t go into the city’s $62million general fund, said Cloutier. The airport is a separate enterprise from the rest of city government, he said, with a fiscal 2013 budget of $12.2million.

    Of that, roughly $10.25million comes from fuel sales, hangar leases, services and fees and other on-airport revenues. The rest comes from federal and state grants and aircraft property taxes.

    The city estimates that it receives about $750,000 in property taxes associated with aircraft. That revenue goes on to the airport for its operating budget.

    Safety first

    The FAA’s 2012 study “General Aviation Airports: A National Asset” looked at about 400 noncommercial airports nationwide. It ranked Concord Regional in the top 30 among 84 airports recognized as having national significance, said Cloutier.

    “Numerous large aircraft that hold 40 to 50 or more passengers land here every day, … ” said Cloutier. “When you’re mixing in all types of aircraft, it becomes even more important to have that extra level of safety.…”

    Without the tower, the airport can still operate safely, said Cloutier, but having the tower is like having a stoplight at an intersection. Without air-traffic controllers in the tower, pilots will have to communicate their locations to each other directly, and staff will not be there to give clearance for takeoffs and landings.

    He noted, however, that pilots routinely do so at airports with no control towers.

    “The FAA mission is to improve safety at airports, and they’re not doing that by shutting down towers,” said Cloutier.