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Hagerstown Regional Airport control tower on sequestration budget cuts list

March 22, 2013|By DON AINES and C.J. LOVELACE | dona@herald-mail.com and cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com
  • The control tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport is one of 149 that will close because of federal budget cuts.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

The control tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport is included on a list of 149 regional airport control towers that will close because of federal budget cuts known as sequestration, the FAA announced Friday afternoon.

“We got the word. We didn’t like the word, but we got the word,” Hagerstown Regional Airport Director Phil Ridenour said Friday afternoon.

A four-week, phased closure of the 149 control towers will begin on April 7, the FAA said, but Ridenour said it might be a week before he knows where in the order of closings Hagerstown Regional Airport will fall.

“The county is committed to keeping the tower in operation once the FAA money dries up,” Ridenour said. The county is planning on a seamless transition, so that if the tower is scheduled to close one day, it will be open the next day, he said.

“It’s not what we wanted,” County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said. “We really would have preferred to have the federal support, the federal dollars to support that tower.”

Callaham said the county has been working on a “Plan B” in the event that the proposed federal funding cuts became reality.

Although it hasn’t been discussed publicly by the five commissioners, Callaham said the initial plan might call for the use county money to pay air traffic controllers to staff the tower “as long as it makes sense to do so.”

“I don’t know what that plan specifically looks like, but I have every confidence that Phil (Ridenour) and (County Administrator) Greg Murray will have things well in hand, and the customers we serve will not see any degradation of service whatsoever,” she said. “... It’s something that all the commissioners want, but again, it’s not official yet.”

County Commissioner William B. McKinley said he would favor seeking out state funds to help cover the costs of keeping the tower open before using local funding, which he views as a “last resort.”

“I don’t want to get there any sooner than we have to,” McKinley said, referring to having to use county dollars as the tower’s sole source of funding.

Ridenour said the airport tower is one of 149 FAA contract towers to be closed. Those towers are staffed by air traffic controllers contracted by the FAA, he said.

There is a U.S. Department of Transportation provision that allows for non-federally operated towers, but he said it needs to be determined how the tower will be operated, Ridenour said. One possibility is for the county to pay an FAA contractor, or operate through some other program, he said.

“Between now and when we’re told the tower has to close, we have to get our paperwork together,” Ridenour said.

U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-6th, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta last week, urging the agency to not close towers in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md.

Will McDonald, communications director for Delaney, said Friday the congressman is “very concerned” about the tower closings and the impact it’s going to have on the economies of Washington County and Western Maryland, which could lead to greater delays and larger problems throughout the state.

“Our office is going to continue to work with our colleagues here in Congress as well as the FAA to try to find better alternatives to these cuts,” McDonald said. “This is another example of how sequestration is the wrong approach to deficit reduction, and we end up with really poorly constructed outcomes such as this, which aren’t in the best interest of the people in Maryland.”

Hagerstown’s tower currently operates from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., 365 days a year, Ridenour said. If the county ends up running the tower, the hours of operation and staffing would have to be determined, he said.

In the meantime, McKinley said airport patrons should expect operations to continue as normal for the “foreseeable future,” noting that take-offs and landings can be taken care of through the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., even if the local tower is shut down.

Callaham said the most important aspect of having the tower is safety on the ground, referring to the management of both commercial flights and private aviation businesses on airport grounds.

“I think it’s very important to have that tower open,” she said.

Even if the tower were to close for a period of time, Sun Air International has informed the airport it will continue its commuter flights to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, Ridenour said.

“We have not yet gotten official word from Allegiant (Air),” which has flights from Hagerstown to Florida, he said. However, Allegiant operates out of a number of small airports that might be facing the same situation with their towers, he said.

Attempts to contact Allegiant Air and Sun Air officials were unsuccessful Friday night.

A discussion about the FAA cuts and the effect on the airport’s tower isn’t currently listed on the county commissioners’ agenda for Tuesday, but Callaham said she would “not be a bit surprised” if it were to come up.

“We’re going to try to keep that control tower open and we’re going to explore all the options that are available to us,” McKinley said.

Hagerstown was one of five towers in Maryland slated to be closed, along with Frederick Municipal, Easton/Newnam Field, Martin State in Baltimore and Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional.

Ridenour said the FAA was looking at 189 air traffic control towers across the country for possible closure.

Twenty-four contract towers will remain open, as well as 16 towers that operate under a cost-sharing program with the FAA, meaning the jurisdiction shares operating costs with the federal agency, he said.

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