HICKORY, N.C. — The future of the air traffic control tower at the Hickory Regional Airport is uncertain. Hickory’s airport has one of 252 towers across the country contracted by the Federal Aviation Administration to provide air traffic control services. But, due in part to the country’s new budget and a new FAA initiative, future funding for federally contracted towers is on unsteady ground. U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was one of 55 senators to sign and send a letter regarding the federal Contract Tower Program to the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Huerta. The senators want a long-term strategy, which they say the FAA hasn’t provided. A similar letter was written and signed by 114 members of the House of Representatives.
The bipartisan group of senators wrote in the letter about their concern with two new FAA initiatives: one would right-size the national airspace system under the direction of Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker, while the other will form a low-activity tower working group.
“It is not clear if, or how, these two efforts are related,” the letter said.
The initiative to right-size has been mentioned publicly — at least once in testimony before Congress — but the senators said they still know few details about the FAA’s plan. That’s because administration officials indicated only through vague statements an intention to match FAA services and facilities with demand from aviation stakeholders, the letter said.
Spencer Dickerson, the executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, also saw this kind of Congressional action when the FAA announced in 2013 it would close 149 contract towers. That time, he said, outreach worked.
“Members of Congress stepped up to the plate and provided funding,” Dickerson said in a phone interview Friday.
And the Congressional support this time around is exactly what Dickerson hoped for. He said it’s a testament to the value of the program when leaders on both sides of the aisle work to keep contract towers open.
“The bottom line is the towers are protected and will remain open for the foreseeable future,” Dickerson said. But towers could be challenged in fiscal year 2016 when sequestration might force budget cuts.
The senators’ letter asked Huerta and the FAA for a response by Aug. 29. Dickerson said he hasn’t heard about any response yet. Contract towers are typically found in smaller airports and rural communities.
Since the program’s birth 30 years ago, they have proven to be beneficial and cost efficient. Towers like the one in Hickory account for more than a quarter of the nation’s total air traffic control operations, according to the senators’ letter. But those towers only receive 14 percent of the FAA’s total tower-operations budget.