The Federal Aviation Administration will stop paying for Hilton Head Island Airport's control tower on April 7, likely closing it indefinitely.
The Hilton Head tower, operated by contractor Robinson Aviation, is among 149 the federal government will stop funding because of $85 billion in forced budget cuts, or sequestration, the agency said Friday.
The agency's announcement comes a day after Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort canceled next month's Beaufort Air Show for the same reason.
Funding for contractor-operated control towers at Donaldson Center Airport in Greenville and Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach also has been eliminated.
Beaufort County officials said the announcement was not a surprise, and that the closure will not affect safety or flights at the county-owned airport.
County staff has asked Robinson Aviation how much it would cost to keep the control tower open through April 21 for the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. That week is typically the busiest of the year, as spectators and professional golfers fly to the island for the annual PGA Tour event.
The price was not immediately available, and such action likely would need County Council approval.
The county also must ask the FAA if it is legal to continue to use Robinson Aviation to keep the tower open, county spokeswoman Joy Nelson said.
The FAA announced March 6 that control towers at 189 airports could lose funding as the agency cuts its budget. After an appeal period, the agency decided to continue funding 24 of the towers.
"We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers, and these were very tough decisions," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration."
Beaufort County did not challenge the agency's decision. County administrator Gary Kubic has said such an appeal would have failed.
Most airports that will lose funding have fewer than 10,000 incoming and outgoing fights and fewer than 150,000 total incoming and outgoing flights a year.
The Hilton Head airport had about 35,000 incoming and outgoing flights last year, down sharply from 74,000 in 2002, according to county records.
Hilton Head's tower was built in 2005 and is staffed 14 hours a day. Because the tower lacks a radar, controllers make visual contact with approaching planes.
Controllers at nearby air traffic-control facilities, including those at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, can keep track of aircraft flying near the Hilton Head airport and alert pilots if there's a risk of their planes coming too close.
Pilots also can monitor the position of nearby aircraft by tuning to certain radio frequencies.
A Robinson Aviation employee at the Hilton Head tower on Friday declined to comment on the FAA announcement.
Furlough notices expected Friday for civilian employees at Beaufort County's three military installations have been delayed until at least April 5.
Federal law requires a 30-day notice of furloughs before they can occur. Based on the April 5 timeline, the one-day-per-week furloughs would begin in early May and last for 22 weeks.
Sue Partridge, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1951, learned of the extension for Department of Defense employees late Thursday.
She said some employees likely affected by the furloughs are optimistic a solution will be found before then.
"They are hopeful that if we got a stay for two weeks that maybe (Congress) will be able to come up with the money ... to not furlough us," said Partridge, who works at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Partridge said more than 1,000 civilian workers at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Naval Hospital Beaufort and Parris Island would be affected.
- Beaufort Air Show canceled due to federal budget cuts, March 21, 2013
- FAA: Hilton Head Airport control tower eyed for closure, March 6, 2013
- Crews still working at Hilton Head Airport tower, March 1, 2013
- The FAA's list of towers set for closure
- Federal workers union protests in Beaufort over sequestration cuts, March 21, 2013