Air traffic control towers in Concord and Hickory will lose federal funding as part of a Federal Aviation Administration move to cut $637 million, the agency announced Friday.
Meanwhile, Charlotte air traffic controllers face furloughs because of the same federal budget cuts.
Taken together, the cutbacks could mean lengthy travel delays in the region, air travel advocates say.
The FAA said that the 149 federally funded control towers run by contractors including eight in the Carolinas must be closed around the nation. Concord is paying to keep its tower open for at least two months while the city considers its options.
The airports affected will stay open, but some air traffic control responsibility will shift to regional centers. Air traffic controllers say that will put even more of a burden on them at a time when they will soon have to begin taking one unpaid furlough day every two weeks.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, needs to trim $1 billion as part of recently enacted mandatory federal budget cuts.
We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.
Ben Murray, air traffic controller and president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Associations local chapter, said the cutbacks would have a significant impact.
Its just going to complicate the operation. ... Were not looking forward to it at all, he said.
The FAA is phasing in the 149 control tower closures nationwide starting April 7.
With or without a tower, the airports going to stay open, and continue to operate safely, said Concord Aviation Director Rick Cloutier. Responsibility for controlling takeoffs and landings will switch to Charlotte if the tower closes.
All of those would be mixed in with the already busy Charlotte Douglas, Cloutier said.
Long lines of planes
Concords airport saw 59,811 landings and takeoffs last year.
There are going to be long lines of planes, Cloutier said.
Murray said there will be four fewer controllers on each shift in Charlotte when furloughs start in the coming weeks. Thats down from 21 controllers on a current full shift.
And the remaining controllers likely will have to handle more flights to make up for the loss of Concords tower.
Charlotte Douglas air traffic controllers currently guide planes in to Concord until theyre about 5 miles from the airport. Then they turn the planes over to Concord controllers, who handle landings.
But if Concords tower is closed, Murray said Charlotte controllers will have to give landing and takeoff clearances when pilots are flying based on their instruments. And when planes land at Concord, the pilots will have to call controllers in Charlotte, on the phone or by radio, to confirm the flight is on the ground because no one will be watching from the Concord tower.
Hickory Airport Director Terry Clark couldnt be reached Friday. He was in a meeting with city leaders discussing the airport.
Lobbying doesnt stop cuts
The FAA announced in late February that it would eliminate funding for air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings, and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations last year.
Department of Transportation officials said Friday they considered several national interest factors in deciding which control towers to close, including a national security interest and whether closing the towers would have a major adverse economic impact.
The FAAs final announcement came after officials in Cabarrus and Catawba counties lobbied federal officials, saying the airports were vital to local business. Concord officials said their regional airport is heavily used by a number of NASCAR teams. The airport also handles spillover from Charlotte Douglas International Airport as its primary relief airport.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagans office says Hagan wrote a letter this week to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta lobbying for the agency to change its mind about the Concord airport.
The FAA decided to keep 24 contract towers from the proposed initial list of closures open, after lobbying from communities. None of the contract towers in the Carolinas slated to close made the cut, however.
We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports, Huerta said in a statement.
The U.S. Contract Tower Association disagreed, and said the cuts which affect more than half of the countrys 251 contract towers will hurt. The decision raises serious safety, efficiency, and economic concerns that the agency has failed to consider, the trade group said in a statement.
It wasnt known Friday how many jobs will be lost as a result of the funding cuts. But the CTA said in January that 1,315 controllers work full or part time at the nations contract towers.
Bad in every way
John Cox, president and CEO of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, said earlier this month that eliminating control tower funding in Concord is bad in every way it can be bad.
Officials in Concord say airport activity is booming. The city said there were more than 730 chartered flights out of Concord Regional Airport in 2012, with most of those involving NASCAR teams, many of which have headquarters in or near Cabarrus County.
Hickory officials also have spent the last week lobbying North Carolinas congressional representatives. That airport, built in 1940, serves as a base of operations for a number of companies based in the Catawba Valley.
At Grand Strand Airport, which is popular with pilots of smaller aircraft who fly in and out of the Myrtle Beach area, local air traffic control duties would have to be handled by the nearby Myrtle Beach International Airport.