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Hernando airport operations fall short, but supporters say tower a good investment

About 90,000 annual airport operations was the estimate used when an FAA-staffed tower was sought for Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. It is unlikely the number will be half that in the tower’s first year.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2012)

About 90,000 annual airport operations was the estimate used when an FAA-staffed tower was sought for Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. It is unlikely the number will be half that in the tower’s first year.

BROOKSVILLE — As the end of the first year of controlled air traffic at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport draws near, records show that airport activity is nowhere close to the original projections.

While 90,000 airport "operations" were predicted, there were just 41,893 operations from the time the tower opened in mid October through the end of August.

At that rate, by the time the tower hits its one-year anniversary, it likely will have reached only about half of the operations predicted.

Operations include takeoffs and landings, as well as activities such as moving fuel trucks, moving airplanes and airplane flyovers.

The lower-than-expected numbers allow airport critics, including longtime pilot and former Hernando County Aviation Authority member David Lemon, to say "I told you so.''

"We could have operated safely for another 25 years without that tower,'' Lemon said.

He argues from a pilot's perspective, saying that the airport should be more concerned about maintaining the aviation side of the facility rather than industrial development.

Lemon has been predicting for several years not only that the tower would be shown to be a waste of public money, but also that the Federal Aviation Administration would pull funding once the true picture of airport activity came into focus.

The tower, however, is in no danger of losing its funding, according to county and airport officials.

They say the original estimates were done when the economy was booming and that the current numbers are respectable, given the size of the Hernando airport. Seeing the potential of having the enhanced safety and sophistication that comes with a tower will grow over time, they argue.

The real question revolves around future funding for the contract tower program nationwide, said new airport manager Kevin Daugherty. With Congress potentially continuing its budget stalemate, he said, contract towers across the country could again land in the cross hairs.

Earlier this year, the FAA announced it would close 149 towers, then relented. The Hernando tower was not on the list, but only because a full year of operations numbers was not available.

"I'm confident that the program isn't going to go away,'' Daugherty said.

He has some experience with the risk of tower closure. He came here from the Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland, where the newly constructed control tower landed on the list of closures.

Daugherty said he made the argument that the airport was just 10 miles from the Camp David presidential retreat, but that wasn't enough to keep it off the list.

In 2008, the Hernando airport received FAA approval to become part of the contract control tower program. The airport planned and built the tower, with 80 percent of the funding for the $2.25 million project coming from the Florida Department of Transportation.

Once the FAA accepted the tower, the agency agreed to pick up the $450,000 annual cost of staffing it. The tower is staffed by one tower manager and six air-traffic controllers. The airport picks up the cost of tower maintenance, at about $15,000 a year.

If the FAA money were pulled, the airport would have to pay for the staffing or close the facility. Daugherty said he doesn't believe that local governments should be in the business of running air traffic control towers. That is the job of the FAA.

Still, Daugherty said he likes air traffic control towers and, as a pilot, he won't fly into an airport without one because of the safety they provide.

They also are a draw, said Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority. He points to the recent new tenant at the airport, Corporate Jet Solutions, as an example. That company reportedly based its decision to come to Hernando on having a tower since the company maintains larger aircraft.

"If the FAA didn't want us to have the tower, we wouldn't have the tower,'' Schraut said. "We're excited about it being here.''

Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager during the time the tower was being planned and constructed, said the estimates for activity at the airport were clearly wrong for the current conditions. They were developed when Hernando was growing rapidly.

That being said, the county would have qualified for the tower even with a projection of only 50,000 operations, he said.

Another impact on the numbers is that the Black Hawk helicopters based at the airport have been in Kosovo for months, and military operations are a significant portion of the activities at the airport, McHugh said.

"We don't have any control over that,'' he said.

The value of the tower is just unfolding, but already a couple of things are clear, McHugh said. The safety aspect is clearly important, he said, but by increasing the level of sophistication at the airport "it reinforces that this is a facility with much more capability than we originally had.''

Another plus is the fact that there are three flight schools planned at the airport, and those will bring with them many more countable operations. Flight schools come to airports with towers to provide a controlled environment for training, McHugh said.

"These businesses are what bring the traffic, and I see a lot of traffic drivers coming down the road pretty quick,'' he said. "I don't think that we have unlocked all of the possibilities . . . all of the value this tower is going to bring.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando airport operations fall short, but supporters say tower a good investment 09/17/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 7:18pm]
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