Local leaders, lawmakers rally to save Concord airport tower

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Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013 5:19 pm

CONCORD, N.C. -- The Federal Aviation Administration informed Concord officials Tuesday that it will no longer fund the seven air traffic control positions at Concord Regional Airport, a move that could have a devastating affect on local and regional economic development efforts, local government and economic development officials say.

The FAA notified Concord officials Tuesday along with other regional airports in Winston-Salem, Hickory, New Bern, Kinston and Greenville, N.C., about the sequestration-induced cuts to their funding, city officials said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said it must make more than $1 billion in cuts because of sequestration, with about $600 million of that coming out of the FAA budget.

“I’m very disappointed,” Congressman Richard Hudson said about the FAA’s plans.

The FAA has a $9.7 billion budget, Hudson said, and must cut $532 million. Cutting funding for regional control towers will save $50 million, he said.

“There are other lower priorities, including waste, that ought to be cut before you cut the control tower at Concord Airport,” Hudson said, adding that he is meeting with local officials to talk about a strategy to restore the funding.

Hudson said in addition to Cabarrus and Concord officials, he’s working on a letter to the FAA with Congressman Mel Watts that they’re hoping Sen. Kay Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr will sign onto as well.

“We’re working together to make sure we put forth our best argument,” Hudson said. “We think they may have made a mistake.”

Concord Regional Airport’s control tower could go dark as soon as April 7, but that will not close the airport, which can continue operating without a tower, city officials said. Not having a staffed tower, though, means pilots rely on direct communication with each other to avoid collisions during take off and landing. No one will watch the air space around the airport for them.

While Concord and other cities have reported being informed by the FAA that their tower funding will be cut, Hudson said the FAA will take public comments until March 13 and make a final decision on March 18 that would be effective April 7.

Concord Regional Airport is the busiest regional airport in the state, Concord Mayor Scott Padgett said. In 2012, it had 59,811 landings and take offs, according to city data. That included 3,959 commercial flights. The number of passenger boardings is up 3,000 percent in the last four years to 10,961.

“I think we were surprised, but like the rest of the country nobody knew where (sequestration) was going to have an effect,” Padgett said. “I guess this is the first real effect that we know about in the city of Concord.”

The FAA, the state of North Carolina and the city of Concord have spent more than $5 million in recent years to strengthen Concord Regional Airport’s runways and to design a taller air traffic control tower to handle an increasing number of 737s taking off and landing at the airport. About 90 percent of that funding came from the FAA and the state.

Concord officials said the airport will likely lose all of its 737 charter flights, almost all of which involve NASCAR race teams, because of the reduction in control tower funding. In addition, some tenants, including major race teams, have operating restrictions that only allow them to use tower controlled airports.

“We’re fearful that most of those (commercial) operations will go away because those are the larger 737 operations,” Concord Aviation Director Rick Cloutier said.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Penske Racing all fly out of Concord, and have their planes hangered there.

City officials are working with legislators to try to reverse the FAA’s decision. They also are looking for ways to keep the control tower open in the short term while a permanent solution is sought.

Concord owns the airport and the control tower, but the FAA staffs the tower with contract workers from Connecticut-based Robinson Aviation Inc.

Concord Regional Airport generates $12 million in revenue annually from hangar leases, fuel sales, landing fees and ground handling fees, Cloutier said. In February, Cloutier proposed an idea to add charter companies that fly to leisure destinations as a way to further boost revenue. But that would be easier to accomplish with a funded control tower, he said.

John Cox, the president and CEO of the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation and the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the news about the airport is a major blow to economic development efforts in Cabarrus County.

“The ripples, the consequences, go throughout the community,” Cox said. “It’s a three-fold smack on our economy.”

Cox said it will hurt the local government with lost revenue and property taxes. It hurts the travel and tourism industry. And it hurts businesses that fly into the airport and chose Cabarrus County and Concord based on the proximity of the regional airport.

Cox said the airport’s use extends beyond business to elected officials and celebrities who have landed there for events in the area. Michelle Obama landed at Concord Regional Airport during her husband’s first campaign to be elected president. Regis Philbin, Kelly Rippa, Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy all flew into Concord Regional when the movie “Cars” premiered at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2006, Cox said.

“The options are endless if you have a functioning tower,” Cox said. “You have no options when the tower is closed.”

Cox said he’s campaigning to keep the airport tower funded.

“This is serious. I think right now we’re going to keep working the phone lines and e-mailing and texting (our legislators) and keep pushing the ball forward,” Cox said.

When asked whether he thought sequestration cuts would really happen, Cox said, “I do think the fiscal situation the country is in is a more than generous dose of reality of which we are not accustomed. That notwithstanding, this is yet just another Washington issue that we’ve got to find a way around.”

Hudson said there are ways the FAA could make cuts without closing control towers. He said a hiring freeze for the rest of the fiscal year, for example, would save $50 million.

Reducing non-personnel items by 7 percent would save $210 million for the fiscal year, he said. That would be expenses such as consultants, consultants, supplies, telecom, training, and advisory services.

Reporter Tim Reaves contributed to this article. Contact reporter Karen Cimino Wilson: 704-789-9141.