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Tower loss risks NASCAR flights

- elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Mar. 06, 2013

Closing the control tower at Concord Regional Airport could cost the city hundreds of charter flights from NASCAR teams and other businesses, local officials said Wednesday after learning that the tower’s federal funding is being eliminated.

One Cabarrus County business leader called the upcoming tower closure “bad in every way it can be bad.” And air traffic control workers in Charlotte said the cuts will slow air traffic throughout the region and increase workloads for controllers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Concord officials said they were notified Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration that funding would be cut off soon. The money is a casualty of the federal sequestration, budget cuts that went in effect last week after Democrats and Republicans failed to reach agreement on how to trim federal spending.

While local officials lobbying to keep Concord’s control tower open, there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed.

John Cox, president and CEO of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, said closing the tower will hurt Concord.

“It’s a fiasco,” said Cox, who has been lobbying elected officials who represent the region since he heard the news.

“It’s bad from a government standpoint, because Concord, over time, has invested tens of millions to make Concord Regional Airport a premier aviation destination in North Carolina,” he said. “From the city standpoint, they’ve invested a lot of money to get to this point in the development process.”

The automatic budget cuts will take $1 billion from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and federal officials say $600 million of that is coming from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Concord’s airport will stay open, but without a control tower to handle departures and takeoffs, much of the work of routing planes will fall on Charlotte Douglas controllers. That will mean a heavier workload for them and increased delays, said Ben Murray, an air traffic controller and president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s local chapter.

“It’s not an ideal situation, especially for somewhere as busy as Concord,” Murray said. Air traffic controllers in Charlotte are also facing unpaid furloughs for one workday every two weeks, likely starting next month. That means there will be four fewer controllers on each shift in Charlotte, down from 21 controllers on a current full shift, to handle more flights.

Losing the control tower at Concord Regional Airport could cause big problems for the large number of NASCAR teams with headquarters in the region. Many of those companies use the Concord airport. Concord officials said they’re concerned the airport could lose all of its large-jet charter flights – most of which involve NASCAR teams.

Hendrick Motorsports spokesman Jesse Essex said the team, which owns a hangar at the Concord airport, is planning for a slowdown. While they believe planes will still be able to take off and land safely, the company may have to build more time into their schedules for delays when the tower is closed.

Cox said the Concord airport also handles people who fly in and out on business and for tourism-related reasons. He said the airport is likely to sell less jet fuel and earn less money from hangar and other fees.

“It’s just bad for business,” he said. “We have a lot of folks from around the country who do business in Charlotte but land at Concord Regional.”

Tower-less airports

The FAA notified Concord officials and those at a number of airports across the country – including seven others in the Carolinas – late last month that control tower funding could be eliminated.

Other airports whose control tower funding is on the chopping block are in Hickory, Kinston and Winston-Salem in North Carolina, along with Grand Strand Airport (North Myrtle Beach), Florence, Greenville’s Donaldson Center, and Hilton Head in South Carolina. The Florence Regional Airport has several daily commercial flights to Charlotte and Atlanta.

Officials in Winston-Salem also received word this week that their airport’s tower will lose funding and close soon, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

While Concord’s airport is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year, the control tower currently operates only from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Under the current system, Murray, the controller, said Charlotte Douglas air traffic controllers handle planes approaching the airport, tracking them and keeping them spaced about seven miles apart. When the planes get to within five miles of Concord Regional, Charlotte controllers hand them over to Concord controllers, who guide the planes in for their landings.

With Concord’s tower closed, Murray said Charlotte controllers will have to handle giving landing and takeoff clearance when pilots are flying based on their instruments.

When a plane lands, it will have to call the tower in Charlotte to confirm to controllers that it is on the ground, since there won’t be anyone in the Concord tower watching. And controllers will have to wait until they hear from the planes in Concord that they’re safely landed before letting others land on the single runway.

“The whole time they’re doing that, we’ve now shut down all the other (flights) in and out of Concord,” Murray said. “I would imagine the delays going in and out of Concord are going to be fairly significant...It’s going to have a domino effect.”

Richard Cloutier, Concord’s aviation director, said he and city officials aren’t sure how much longer the airport control tower can remain operating.

“We are reviewing the possibility of all other funding sources at this time,” Cloutier said Wednesday. “We don’t have an answer now if other funding is available.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041