After an intense lobbying campaign by congressional and local lawmakers, the Frederick Municipal Airport tower has won a last-minute reprieve that has postponed its closure until June 15.
Airport Manager Kevin Daugherty called the delay announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday a “stay of execution” for the tower, which state and local officials have been scrambling to keep open after budget cuts put it on the chopping block.
Frederick’s tower, which was only opened last June, was scheduled to close at 9 p.m. on April 21, according to Daugherty. The tower is manned by six air-traffic controllers and one tower manager, all of whom would lose their jobs if and when the tower is closed, he said.
Maryland’s U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and U.S. Reps. John Delaney (D-Dist. 6) and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Dist. 2) sent a letter on April 4 to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, urging him to delay the closing of Maryland’s airport towers while Congress attempts to avoid the budget sequestration cuts.
On Friday, LaHood announced a delay of the closing of the 149 airport towers across the nation until June 15.
LaHood said in a news release that the reason for the delay was to give officials time to let people know about the changes to their airports. About 50 of the airport towers that will lose funding are being taken over by municipalities or other airport authorities, and the additional time will allow the FAA to help the transition, the release said.
The looming 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.
The letter to LaHood urging that the Frederick tower be kept open cited its proximity to the presidential retreat at Camp David, as well as its financial impact on the city’s economy.
Delaney had also sent a letter previously arguing that the Frederick and Hagerstown airports should remain open based on the more than $2 million in business and the 2,500 jobs they represent.
Richard Griffin, the Frederick director of economic development, said the tower’s operational costs are between $650,000 and $700,000 a year — an amount that the city would not be able to cover.
Griffin said the hope was for a grant from the state or federal government to help shoulder the fiscal burden.
Del. Galen Clagett (D-Dist. 3A), recently sent Frederick Mayor Randy McClement (R) a letter reporting that the Maryland Aviation Administration had agreed to provide a 50 percent funding match to keep the tower open through Sept. 30, 2012.
In an interview Monday, Clagett said he wasn’t sure what impact the announcement would have on trying to coordinate keeping the towers open.
“The real deal is trying to get these different entities coordinated, and find out what the state can do,” he said.
Jonathan Dean, spokesman for the MAA, said he couldn’t comment on the ongoing negotiations to keep the towers open, but said the FAA’s decision to keep the towers open was beneficial, and that negotiations would continue.
Clagett’s letter had urged McClement to find the funds to keep the tower operational. But McClement said on April 3 that it was unlikely the city could come up with that much money.
“I don’t have $150,000,” he said. “It’s not there.”
McClement said the current efforts have been to try to find the funding to make it through September, because the sequestration cuts could be over by then. But even with the tower closing delay, the city would not be able to find the necessary funds, he said.
“It buys some more time for us to try to figure out what to do,” he said. “Right now, the thought process is we wait and see. Hopefully, this extra time will allow the federal government to figure out whether or not they’re going to close all the towers in Maryland, except at BWI.”
Daugherty said the timing of the shutdown and the city’s budget cycle, which is currently under way, have left the airport in a tough position to find the needed funding to stay open.
Even with the delay until June, it will be difficult, although it does lessen the financial burden, he said.
He said the original agreement was for the FAA to pay for the staffing, which would be a burden for the city.
“There’s not a lot of airports that can come up with that kind of money,” Daughtery said.
The tower’s closure will mean a return to pilots having to control the airspace around the city, he said. With the tower, the airspace in a four-mile circumference is controlled by the air-traffic controllers.
Daugherty said the lack of tower isn’t a danger to residents, but congestion at the airport is inconvenient for pilots.
“If there’s not a lot of airplanes, within the vicinity of Frederick, no big deal,” he said. “When it’s high operational tempo, a busy spring day, busy summer day, it’s a problem. And it’s a negative impact on the businesses at the airport, because a lot of the businesses will not come in to a non-towered airport.”
In addition to the flights in and out, the airport also has two flight schools, and provides a location for business and personal flights.
Daugherty and city officials sent an appeal letter to the FAA when the tower closure was first announced, touting its status as the busiest general aviation airport in the state, with 130,000 annual flights, and as backup relief for Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.
The letter highlighted several federal uses since the airport’s opening, including more than 30 military helicopters using it to transport dignitaries during the G-8 Summit in May 2012.
It also noted an incident in which an unauthorized vehicle was spotted near the runway and apprehended by the Frederick Police Department that would have gone unnoticed without the tower.
The airport was also used for three presidential visits, due to inclement weather at Camp David, and as a secondary airport for the presidential State of the Union address and the inauguration.