Frederick Airport tower closure disappoints city officials -- Gazette.Net



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Frederick’s airport tower — a $5.3 million project funded by the Federal Aviation Administration that opened in June — will close April 7 due to the sequester-related budget cuts, a move that disappoints city economic officials.

“The tower represented the future for us,” said Richard Griffin, the city’s director of economic development.

“Not only is it a safety feature to make sure the 130,000 annual airport operations are done safely, but it was part of our overall strategy to gain support for Frederick Municipal Airport — having a facility our corporate jets want to fly into, having a runway long enough for them to take off with a full complement of fuel and passengers, and having hangars for overnight storage,” Griffin said.

The airport towers in Frederick and Hagerstown, which also will be closed, “represent more than $200 million of business revenue and more than 2,500 jobs,” for the area, according to a letter that U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-6th) of Potomac sent to the FAA urging them to keep the towers open.

Delaney also pointed out that the Frederick tower is often used to control the airspace around Camp David, by coordinating and reducing the need for military aircraft intervention when private aircraft stray too close to that restricted air space.

Besides Frederick and Hagerstown, three other small airports in the state will be closed, including Easton, Salisbury and the Martin State Airport in Baltimore, according to the FAA.

The only tower remaining in operation in Maryland will be at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Baltimore.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a news release. “Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Griffin said the tower, which has only been open for nine months, has only made small growth in that time, with only a slight increase in traffic.

“Our presumption is we’re probably going to see activity levels near where they were before the tower started,” Griffin said.

The shutdown stems from more than $600 million in cuts from the FAA that would result in mandatory furloughs for nearly 47,000 air transportation employees and the closure of more than 100 air-traffic control towers across the nation, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore said in a statement issued in February.

Frederick Airport Manager Kevin Daugherty did not return a calls for comment.

But he told The Gazette in February that the shutdown of the tower could pose a safety problem for pilots since they would be forced to handle flight data in and out of the airport themselves.

“It is an extra set of eyes in the sky,” he said previously. “We would have to go back to self-reporting and that can be a problem.”

The control tower at the Frederick airport is manned by six air-traffic controllers and one tower manager, all of whom will lose their jobs in the cut.

Tower-controlled airports function by having controllers issue departure and arrival instructions for pilots, according to the FAA. Without a tower, pilots using the airport are responsible for talking directly to one another.

At non-towered airports “the responsibility for collision avoidance, sequencing and knowing the local procedures lies solely with the pilot,” the FAA website said.

The $5.3 million tower, which has been in the works for about a decade, was paid for by the FAA as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Each year, 130,000 airplanes fly in and out of the Frederick airport, making it the second busiest airport in the state, behind BWI-Thurgood Marshall, Daugherty said. Of that, 226 airplanes are based at the airport.

Griffin said the tower closing, if it continues, would have more of a long-term effect on the airport.

“Clearly, the fact that the tower is closing will hurt our long-term plans for expanding the airport and bringing business to the area, but it’s more the impact of the long-term strategy here than it is on the businesses,” Griffin said. “If there are fewer airplanes coming, that will have an effect [on business].”

Griffin said he couldn’t name specific businesses that were using the tower, but that previous conversations with Daugherty indicated use by many national and international businesses.

“We want to see that tower reopened and have it be a contributor to safely increasing air traffic business at Frederick,” he said. “It drives business, drives economics and drives employment.”

In addition to the flights in and out, the airport also has two flight schools and operates as a location for business and personal flights.

The Frederick Municipal Airport is a reliever airport for BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport, meaning it directs smaller flights away from the larger airport to alleviate traffic.

tlaino@gazette.net