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Airport tower closure concerns businesses at Hagerstown Regional Airport

March 28, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

Businesses at Hagerstown Regional Airport have expressed concerns about the potential closure of the airport’s air-traffic control tower as a result of federal budget cuts.

At a roundtable meeting Wednesday, organized by Rider Jet Center, representatives of those businesses met to “get a uniform voice” about the situation, Airport Director Phil Ridenour said.

According to Ridenour, the four-week phase-out of the 149 federal contract towers is set to begin April 7. Hagerstown’s tower is scheduled to close May 5, he said.

Aaron Harrison, owner of Hagerstown Flight School LLC, said the tower closure is “absolutely going to affect” businesses if a solution is not in place by the closure date.

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“I think everybody’s concerned,” Ridenour said.

Ridenour said county and airport officials have planned several meetings in the coming weeks to establish goals and backup funding plans to keep the tower open.

“We have no idea what that’s going to look like at this point, where funding may come from,” he said.

“Obviously, the best-case scenario would be for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to continue to keep our tower open and keep the funding in place. As a backup, the county is prepared to do whatever we need to do temporarily, at least, to keep our tower in operation.” 

County officials have said local and/or state dollars could be an option to keep the tower staffed.

Ridenour stressed that airport operations will continue as normal even without an operational on-site tower.

“The airport will not close just because we don’t have an air-traffic control tower,” he said. “We are able to continue to operate, just under different conditions and through different operating centers as opposed to operating right from Hagerstown.”

Landings and takeoffs can be handled by the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., although having an on-site tower greatly increases safety of aircraft on the ground, officials have said.

Businesses concerned

For Harrison, with an active student load of about 50 to 75 students and who operates several flights a day, an operational on-site tower is crucial to his flight school business.

“Tower airports synchronize everything — air, ground, transition, in and out,” Harrison said. “They take care of it all. They are a vital part of everything we do.”

Rider Jet Center Vice President Ben Rider said his business, which provides services for aircraft and pilots, would be indirectly affected by a tower closure, which could result in less aircraft traffic.

Gary Hoyle, director of campus operations for Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, said PIA’s branch campus in Hagerstown trains aviation technicians and mechanics, who then are looking for employment at airport-related businesses.

“Without the tower, there will be an effect,” Hoyle said, adding that the effect to PIA is marginal compared to other businesses. “I think the biggest effect is going to be drawing industry to the airport itself.”

Searching for a solution

Washington County Commissioner John F. Barr said there is “tremendous interest” in keeping the tower open. With the second-longest runway in Maryland and the airport’s proximity to Camp David, Barr said the airport is in a strategic location with regard to national security.

“Airport commission staff, our local airport folks, our board of county commissioners, even city council members know and realize how important this regional airport is to this community,” he said. “We’ve got some thoughts and ideas of how to keep that tower open should the government continue moving in the direction of closure.”

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said she wants to find a way to reverse the negative effects that the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration could have on Maryland and Western Maryland, and possibly regain federal funding for Hagerstown.

“There has to be another way to be able to do this, and I believe in a balanced approach,” she said during a visit to the airport Tuesday.

Mikulski said she and other leaders in Washington, D.C., plan to make another pitch to the FAA to keep the Capital region airport towers open. It’s possible, she said, Hagerstown could qualify for a waiver if it’s in the best interest of national security.

“And I don’t know what’s more important than helping our president,” Mikulski said.

County Commissioner William B. McKinley said Mikulski’s visit might have opened her eyes to some things she “maybe wasn’t aware of” at the regional airport, specifically about Hagerstown’s runway and its economic vitality.

“From her angle of national security, that’s a very, very important issue because, even though Frederick is also crucial, it’s possible that with that longer runway there are some planes that could land much more easily in Hagerstown ... so that makes our airport a little more unique,” he said.

U.S. Congressman John Delaney, who met with local airport officials earlier this month, also has said he was against the sequester and wants to find a way to help preserve federal funds for the towers at Hagerstown and Frederick Municipal Airport, which was also named for closure.

McKinley said he hopes the commissioners get to meet with airport officials in the “very near future” to discuss measures to keep the tower open.

Ridenour said he is currently working with the county’s public relations staff to set up a news conference sometime next week to provide updates on the “huge effort” already under way to keep the tower open. 

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