Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported which federal agency produced the 2012 report on control towers. The report was by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general, not the General Accountability Office.
After a decade of lobbying, Frederick Municipal Airport finally had an air traffic control tower. And it had the federal stimulus program to thank for covering the $5.3 million cost.
Now, less than a year after it opened, the five-story tower is in trouble. Last month, it became one of 149 nationwide designated to be closed as a result of mandatory budget cuts.
But officials in Frederick aren’t giving up on keeping their tower open, and a decision last week by the Federal Aviation Administration to delay the closures has given them more time. Joining with officials from other Maryland counties affected by the closures, Frederick officials are asking the state for money to keep the towers operating.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a vocal critic of the closures, and a bipartisan group of senators plan to introduce legislation this month to keep the towers open. And several communities across the country have sued the Federal Aviation Administration to block the closures.
Whatever happens, the uncertainty over the tower has unsettled community leaders in Frederick and threatened the economic promise that accompanied the stimulus funding last year.
Frederick’s traffic tower, like hundreds of other stimulus-funded projects across the country, was billed as a way to create jobs in a struggling American economy while improving everything from roads to airport safety. But if Frederick can’t keep the tower open, it may become an empty 106-foot-tall monument to partisan inertia and, some say, government waste.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Frederick’s airport manager, Kevin Daugherty, during a recent interview in his office overlooking the tower. “This is the world of mixed messages — ‘Yes, you need a tower for safety. Here’s $5.3 million.’ Fast-forward to 2013, and now it’s, ‘Oh, not so much.’ ”
Nearly 1,000 controllers, including the seven at Frederick, could lose their jobs because of the potential closures. “It’s so frustrating to see government work so poorly,” Moran said. “This whole thing is not just unnecessary — it’s poor government.”
Under the sequestration, the FAA must cut $637 million from its budget before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The FAA estimates it will save $30 million to $40 million by closing towers at airports that have fewer than 150,000 takeoffs and landings a year. In 2012, Frederick logged about 130,000, but airport officials had predicted that the number of flights would grow to 165,000 by 2020.
But Frederick has served as a relief valve for vastly larger Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. Some worry that closing the Frederick tower and similar ones in the state will push more air traffic to BWI.
In a conference call with airport managers last week, FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta said the decision to close the towers was difficult and emphasized that safety will remain a top priority. In making the cuts, he told the managers, the FAA focused on smaller airports, where the impact would be less widely felt.
Like many small-airport towers, all 149 on the FAA’s list are staffed by contract controllers rather than by FAA employees, making it easier for the agency to shut them down.
At least five airports, including ones in Washington state, Indiana and Ohio, have sued to try to halt the closures. Others have taken a different approach: Citing safety concerns, Officials in Texas have said they will pay to keep their towers operating.
Republicans, including Moran, have questioned whether closing the towers is the best strategy for reducing expenses. They point to a 2012 report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general as evidence that towers operated by FAA contractors cost less to operate than those staffed by FAA employees.
City officials in Frederick had long pushed to build a tower at the airport, which sits on more than 600 acres about 20 miles from the Camp David presidential retreat. They reasoned that a tower would offer an added layer of safety and sophistication as well as make the airport a more attractive option for corporate jet pilots seeking to avoid traffic at the region’s larger airports.
If the tower is closed, the airport will resume operating the way it had since its 1946 opening, with pilots coordinating takeoffs and landings among themselves, Daugherty said. But officials say they would rest easier knowing there was someone in the tower directing that traffic.
“It’s like taking away all the traffic lights,” said Josh Largent, 27, one of the Frederick controllers who would lose his job if the tower closes. “Yes, you can operate. Yes, people know the rules, but wouldn’t you feel better if the lights were there?”
Frederick officials say the city can’t afford to pay for tower operations. The airport is self-supporting: Its income covers its operating costs, but there is no money in this year’s budget, or next year’s, to pay the more than $800,000 annual cost of maintaining the tower and paying the controllers.
“We could staff it, but it’s not feasible,” Frederick Mayor Randy McClement (R) said of the tower, which is staffed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., 365 days a year.
For their part, Frederick’s controllers have grown weary of the political bickering. Legislators and budget officials may see the Frederick tower as one item on a giant ledger, but the controllers take a different view. At about $30 an hour, it’s a job that pays the mortgage, sends kids to college and puts food on the table. It’s a job they love. It’s a job that will be very hard to walk away from.
But, they say, they have little time to stew.
Controller Chris Swan, 38, said bemoaning his predicament isn’t going to help him find a new job. “I’ve got five kids, and I want them to see me picking up my life and moving forward,” he said. The temporary reprieve is only that. “It’s a few extra paychecks,” Swan said. “But we could still close.”
Their seats in the tower afford the controllers a panoramic view of the hills that surrounded Frederick. On a recent visit, the sky was thick with clouds and the wind was up. To the south, farmhouses dot the green hills. To the north are two state parks. A half-dozen computer screens convey weather conditions, radio frequencies and other information.
Just a few weeks ago, the tower’s low-key manager, Todd Johnson, was planning for the future. He and his wife put in a bid on a house in Hagerstown, a place they thought they could put down roots after years of moving.
Now Johnson is planning for a different future. He canceled the contract on the house and has no plans to buy anytime soon.
Johnson said he’d heard rumors about a possible closure even before Frederick turned up on a preliminary list released in February. Still, it felt like a kick in the gut when the news broke.
“Losing a 33-year career — it’s like losing a member of the family,” he said softly. At 51, he’s too young too retire but, he said, probably too old to get a job as an FAA controller.
When the tower closes, he’s not sure what will happen.
“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I wish I did.”