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Concord, Hickory airport officials: FAA must act to keep towers open

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

Pilots and others familiar with two regional airports that were expected to close their towers in June said they are cautiously optimistic that federal legislation passed last week will keep them open.

But they said it’s up to the Federal Aviation Administration to take the next step to keep the towers in Concord and Hickory open.

“It sounds good, but until they say something directly or until we receive something official, we’re not getting too excited about it,” Leroy Mazac, an air traffic controller for the Hickory Regional Airport, said on Sunday.

Congress approved legislation on Friday that, in part, gave the FAA the flexibility to move funds between accounts to end furloughs of air traffic controllers at airports across the nation. The same legislation also gave the FAA the financial flexibility to prevent closing small airport towers around the country.

The towers at Concord’s and Hickory’s airports – along with 147 others – were set to close by June 15 as part of a Federal Aviation Administration move to cut $637 million.

While officials said Sunday that they were encouraged by the legislation, they also pointed out that it doesn’t require the FAA is to do anything specific.

“It’s good that Congress found a way to open up some more flexibility for the FAA, but it’s now up to the FAA to kind of go with it,” city of Concord spokesman Peter Franzese said. “That’s what we don’t know yet.”

As of Sunday evening, the FAA hadn’t announced whether the new legislation will affect the towers in Concord and Hickory.

An FAA spokesperson reached Sunday would not comment, referring reporters to a statement issued by the agency. The statement addressed only the furloughs and did not mention the tower closings.

“We have to assume for our own peace of mind that it is going to close until we hear otherwise,” Mazac said. “There’s a little glimmer of hope, but that’s about all it is right now.”

Al Bormuth, an Airport Support Network volunteer and a pilot from Hickory, said he’s concerned that the FAA will not ultimately use the newly available funds to restore the towers.

“The FAA had plenty of other places they could have gotten the money (during budget cuts) but they chose to close these towers,” he said. “It doesn’t really seem like they want them open.”

Regional impact

Concord’s airport tower has been in operation since 1998. Annually, the airport sees about 65,000 departures and landings.

Meanwhile, the Hickory airport’s tower has been in operation for 14 years. That airport sees 35,000 departures and landings annually.

Regardless of the imminent tower closures, both airports have said in recent weeks that they plan to continue operating.

And in Concord, officials even voted to pay the salaries of controllers for two months to keep its tower open while the city studies what to do.

Both airports have said that airport operations would be safer if the towers remained.

Brad Bormuth, a flight instructor in Hickory, described how the airport’s two runways cross, creating a potentially dangerous situation if one plane was to land at the same time another was taking off.

“Having that control tower there is an important extra level of protection,” he said.

Arriero: 704-804-2637; Twitter: @earriero
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