UPDATE: Lynchburg Airport would face penalty to keep tower open - FOX 21/27 WFXR Roanoke/WWCW Lynchburg News, Weather

UPDATE: Lynchburg Airport would face penalty to keep tower open under one plan

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Update 9:45 p.m.

The Virginia Aviation Board said it would not waive the three-year penalty, should Lynchburg Regional Airport leaders choose to use money from the air carrier entitlement funds to keep the tower running.

It takes about $40,000 dollars a month to operate the control tower.

Lynchburg Regional Airport Director Mark Courtney presented a plan to during an emergency meeting of the Virginia Aviation Board to keep the air traffic control tower open by using state entitlement money, money that's already in the bank that would be used to operate the tower for up to a year.

"It should be seamless as far as moving into a continued air traffic control operations tower without missing a beat" said Courtney.

State entitlement money is not intended for operational issues like air traffic control, so the airport would face a three-year penalty. For every dollar they spend out of that budget on non-approved expenses, they'll lose the same amount of special funding they can apply for to complete special projects. Courtney asked the board to waive the penalty, but the board said no.

"It's tough to stay in business to make the money to cover the expenses of operating these airports. This board will try to do everything we can to help airports, but we have to look at the whole picture and protect all of them," said John Mazza, Jr., the board Chairman.

"That is something that we certainly can live with and I think in the future will have the support from the board if something does change. Unforeseen changes occur that will require us to need discretionary funds in the future" said Courtney.

Courtney says they have no plans to apply for discretionary funding in the next three years. In fact, they've only gotten that funding three times in the last 12 years.

In 2000, they used $300,000 to buy snow removal equipment.

In 2001, they used $81,000 to repave the runways.

In 2002, they used $141,000 for a new general aviation terminal.

Courtney says using the state entitlement money is just a temporary solution until they can come up with a permanent one. They are exploring other options, including legislative action to re-fund the tower.

The airport was set to build a new tower starting next year, but those plans have now been put on hold.

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Administrators at Lynchburg Regional Airport will meet with a state board Wednesday morning to discuss plans to keep their air traffic control tower open. The FAA announced earlier this year it would close the tower by June 15th as part of federal sequestration cuts.

Airport Manager Mark Courtney says the FAA's decision left him stunned, considering how busy the airport is. While it doesn't have as many commercial flights as other nearby airports, it does get a lot of use from private pilots, the military, and especially Liberty University's flight school.

"To put it in perspective, last year we handled around 105,000 aircraft operations," Courtney said. "That's more than twice as many operations as Roanoke and that is considerably more than Charlottesville. Interestingly enough, we actually had more operations last year than Richmond International Airport."

He says the airport is not in a position right now to operate as a non-tower airport, which is why he and other airport leaders have put together a plan to keep the tower open temporarily.

"This is a federal obligation," Courtney said. "Taxpayers and airline passengers pay taxes to be able to ensure that airports like ours have adequate air traffic control services as long as they can be justified. And the demand warrants it."

They want to use state money (known as air carrier entitlement funds) they already have in the bank to pay for air traffic control operations for up to a year. They hope the FAA will come back to them in that time with money to fund the tower long term. If not, the airport will have a full year to make the transition to a non-tower airport, rather than just a few months.

"I can assure our airline passengers and users that we will continue to have our air traffic control tower manned until it's appropriate to be able to do something," Courtney said, "preferably to continue with federal funding."

Courtney will present the plan to the Virginia Aviation Board at meeting 11 a.m. Wednesday morning at the Kirkley Hotel. The airport does not need the board's approval to move forward with that plan.

There is a catch, however: air carrier entitlement funds are primarily used for capital improvement projects. When an airport chooses to use them for other things, such as funding air traffic control operations, the state penalizes the airport by making it ineligible to receive those funds for up to three years. Courtney will ask the board to waive that penalty.

The airport has been in contact with our leaders in Congress on this issue. Senator Jerry Moran from Kansas introduced legislation Tuesday that would prohibit the FAA from closing any air traffic control towers. Both of Virginia's Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are co-sponsors.