Funding for Hilton Head Island Airport's air traffic control tower is in doubt as $85 billion in federal budget cuts known as sequestration begin taking effect.
The Federal Aviation Administration notified Beaufort County on Monday that it expects to stop paying for contracted air traffic control services at most small airports, including Hilton Head. Loss of federal funding would force many of those towers to close.
Most airports on the closings list have fewer than 10,000 incoming and outgoing commercial fights and fewer than 150,000 total incoming and outgoing flights.
The Hilton Head facility had about 35,000 incoming and outgoing flights last year, compared with 74,000 in 2002, according to county records.
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"Your airport falls below the ... criteria based on fiscal-year 2012 traffic count, and therefore the tower is on the list of those for which we may cease providing funding," FAA administrator Michael Huerta wrote in a March 5 letter.
The agency says it won't release a final decision on which towers to stop funding until March 18. Contractors run about 250 airport towers across the country.
Airport officials have until March 13 to contest the closure. The FAA says "negative impact on the national interest" is the only criteria it will weigh when deciding which towers to fund.
County administrator Gary Kubic said Wednesday that he doesn't believe that the Hilton Head airport would meet that criteria.
The FAA has identified as many as 189 towers at airports across the country that could be shut down by Sept. 30 as a result of the budget cuts, according to news reports. Most would close April 7.
Hilton Head's tower, built in 2005 and staffed 14 hours a day by crews from private contractor Robinson Aviation, lacks a radar, so controllers make visual contact with planes as they prepare to land.
Kubic said the county would talk with Piedmont Airlines, which flies out of Hilton Head under the US Airways flag, and other parties before deciding how to proceed. For now, he said, it appears losing the tower would not cause commerical service to end.
Graham Kerr, an Airports Board member who flew commercial aircraft to Hilton Head hundreds of times, agrees on-site controllers are not essential.
"It's my professional opinion ... that the safety of general and commercial operations at Hilton Head will not be adversely affected by the temporary closing of the control tower," he said.
Commercial and private aircraft operated comfortably at Hilton Head airport for years before the tower was built. A temporary tower was brought in during the Heritage golf tournament because of the influx of private aircraft the PGA Tour event brought.
Controllers at nearby air traffic control facilities, including those in Savannah, can keep track of aircraft flying in the vicinity of the Hilton Head airport and alert pilots if there's a risk of their planes coming too close. Pilots can also stay abreast of where other aircraft in the area are by tuning to certain radio frequencies.
It's possible the county could use local money to keep the tower staffed, although that decision would fall to County Council, Kubic said. It would probably be a tough sell.
Based on declining volumes at the airport, Councilman Steve Baer said he doesn't believe the tower is a necessity. He also doesn't believe the county should pay for it, given other local demands for services.
An FAA spokesman was unable Wednesday to say how much the agency pays Robinson Aviation to run Hilton Head's tower each year.
A company employee at the Hilton Head tower on Wednesday declined to comment.