Without a staffed air traffic control tower, “there is going to be an incident” involving aircraft at or near Hagerstown Regional Airport, one concerned business owner said Thursday.
“I feel very strongly that we are going to have an incident, and it’s going to impact people on the ground as well as the crew in the aircraft when that happens,” said Austin Heffernan, owner of Royal Aircraft Services LLC on Airpark Road.
Heffernan was one of five airport business officials who spoke Thursday during a news conference at the airport terminal, highlighting the local impact of proposed FAA cuts that would eliminate federal funding to 149 air control towers due to across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
“I think the FAA’s decision to look at commercial volume of traffic ... was an error,” Heffernan said. “I think they need to look at a couple other factors, too. I think the safety implications are going to be severe here without a tower, and I think it’s going to have a trickle-down effect to the local economy.”
Safety is such a major factor at Hagerstown because of the types of businesses that operate daily on the airfield and in the surrounding airspace, officials said.
Pilots, in particular, will be affected by a tower closure, said Randy Cupit, test and evaluation program manager for Avenge Inc., located near the airport on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The company handled more than 10,000 test flights for government and military aircraft in 2012, Cupit said, like many built in facilities adjacent to the airfield. One company, Sierra Nevada Corp., recently was awarded a $43 million contract to build two modified government surveillance planes.
“The separation services provided by the Hagerstown control tower are immeasurable for the public safety and to help protect taxpayers’ investment in the aircraft that we are testing,” Cupit said.
Along with its close proximity to Camp David and the Washington, D.C., area, the large volume of federal defense training flights taking place near Hagerstown are a big factor why the tower should stay open, Heffernan said. While in the air, test pilots have enough to deal with making sure their airplane stays airborne and all systems are working correctly, he said.
“And he’s depending on the tower to make sure somebody wandering into the airspace doesn’t clip him,” Heffernan said.
Holding out hope
The four-week phaseout of federally contracted towers will begin Sunday, although Hagerstown’s tower is not scheduled for closure until May 5, according to airport Director Phil Ridenour.
In the meantime, Washington County has signed and sent a joint letter to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to request state funding to pay for 75 percent of the tower’s operations from May 5 through the end of September. Ridenour said three other counties affected by the closures — Frederick, Talbot and Wicomico — also sent letters.
Ridenour said new federal legislation is being introduced by Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, as an effort to stop the sequestration portion of the funding cuts to the towers.
“I don’t think any hope is lost at this point,” he said. “We certainly hope that ... the federal government finds a pot of money somewhere to keep the contract towers open, but we also understand that there’s a lot of other hands out there that have the same issues that we do.”
Gary Hoyle, director of operations for the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, said he believes the tower should be funded indefinitely, noting that the fully functional airport was a big selling point when PIA located a branch campus in Hagerstown in recent years.
“Without it, the capabilities of the airport will be seriously hindered in terms of potential air traffic volume,” he said. “In addition, the movement of industry into the area could be placed at a standstill.”
The cost of funding the 149 towers selected for closure through the remainder of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is about $50 million, several officials said. Meanwhile, the FAA’s budget for travel to conferences and events totals out to around $700 million, Cupit said.
“Isn’t it worth the FAA to travel only on $650 million instead of $700 million to ensure the safety of me, you and the rest of our crews ... as well as protect your taxpayer investments?” he asked attendees during the news conference.
Representatives of U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin Cardin attended the event, along with a representative from U.S. Rep. John Delaney’s office.
Possible adverse effects
In a joint letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Raymond H. LaHood, the group of federal lawmakers urged the DOT to “take another look at the adverse economic impact of closing the Maryland towers.”
Closing towers at Hagerstown, along with Frederick Municipal Airport, will prevent President Obama and other dignitaries from using both airports as a transfer point to nearby Camp David, the letter states.
“The peak spring and summer season is fast approaching,” it reads. “The closures will jeopardize the economic security of these communities and counties.”
County Commissioner John F. Barr, who also spoke, highlighted the airport’s economic impact on the area, noting it was ranked third out of 35 public-use airports in the state, according to a recently released Maryland Aviation Administration study.
“HGR generated over $110 million in business revenue and collected over $7.4 million in state and local taxes,” Barr said, adding that the county will give its full support “in every way possible to keep this tower open.”