McLEAN, Va. — Just one year ago, Frederick Municipal Airport debuted a new, $5 million air traffic control tower paid for by the federal stimulus legislation.
Now, automatic budget cuts have the new tower and four others at small to mid-size airports in Maryland at risk for closure.
Maryland airports are submitting pleas this week to the Federal Aviation Administration on why their control towers should remain open. Five towers — Frederick Municipal, Hagerstown Regional, Easton Airport, Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport and Martin State Airport in Baltimore County — are on a list of 238 airports across the country where the FAA is considering closing the airports to save money.
Two of those airports, Hagerstown and Salisbury, operate commercial flights.
The airports have until Wednesday to make their pitch to keep the towers open. The FAA expects to make a final decision March 18.
The FAA says airports can remain open even if their towers close. But pilots would be responsible for their own safety by talking to each other, instead of the tower.
Richard Griffin, economic development director for the City of Frederick, which owns Frederick Municipal, said the city is disappointed to see the tower’s future in jeopardy so soon after it was launched. But he understands the need for belt-tightening, and the city is proposing that perhaps hours and staffing be cut back rather than eliminated.
Frederick’s airport has more than 130,000 takeoffs and landings each year, second only to Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport, which had nearly 270,000 operations last year, and significantly more than any of the other general aviation airports in Maryland. He said closing the tower at Frederick could result in a lot of traffic being diverted to BWI.
He also said Frederick is unique in that the airport provides a support role for the nearby Camp David presidential retreat. While the president usually flies on the Marine One helicopter directly to Camp David, he has occasionally flown to Frederick and made the rest of the trip by motorcade. And when Obama is at Camp David, other dignitaries often use the airport.
Bob Bryant, manager of the Salisbury Airport, said he will emphasize in his petition that Salisbury is home to the headquarters regional carrier, Piedmont Air, a US Airways subsidiary that carries 3 million passengers a year on its fleet of turboprop aircraft. The Salisbury airport also offers the only commercial service on the entire Delmarva peninsula, with daily flights to the US Airways hubs in Charlotte in Philadelphia.
At the Easton Airport, manager Mike Henry said he will remind the FAA that just last year, it designated his airport as a national asset, a classification that was applied to only 84 of nearly 3,000 general aviation airports across the country. The FAA based the classification on numerous categories, like the amount of international traffic and the number of jets based at the airport.
All of the airports said they would remain open without a tower, but most acknowledged that safety would be affected. In addition, corporate flights that constitute a significant portion of traffic at smaller airports could diminish, because many corporations have policies that require pilots to use airports staffed with control towers.
Henry said the logic of the budget cuts escapes him. He said it costs about $500,000 a year keep the tower open at Easton, including the salaries of the six controllers who work there. A single accident involving a $400,000 Cessna aircraft would wipe out any savings, not to mention the risk of injury or loss of life to travelers.
“Is this really the best way to save $500,000?” he asked.
The five Maryland towers on the chopping block are all staffed by contractors, as opposed to who work directly for the government. Two airports in Delaware and northern Virginia — Wilmington and Manassas, respectively — are staffed by FAA controllers. While those towers are also on the FAA’s list of those facing potential cuts, union contracts make it more difficult to immediately shut down those towers, officials say.