Doctors, pilots fight airport closure

Sep. 16--CHAPEL HILL -- It's been more than three months since doctors associated with the N.C. Area Health Education Centers testified before the state Legislature about the importance of the Horace Williams Airport to their mission.

The airport sits on land owned by UNC and is expected to close when the university moves forward with plans for the Carolina North research campus. AHEC's Medical Air Operation, which flies doctors, medical students and faculty around the state to treat patients and attend educational activities, is based at Horace Williams Airport.

University officials are moving quickly on planning for Carolina North -- the Board of Trustees is expected to approve a concept plan for the project at the end of this month. But those who want to keep the airport in operation have not given up.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has written letters to the N.C. House Committee on Appropriations, as well as various subcommittees, urging legislators to keep Horace Williams Airport open until "a replacement facility is accessible and operational."

The AOPA points out that the House Committee on Appropriations previously recommended that the airport remain open until a replacement is "operational."

"Our position is and has been through this issue that the airport should remain open," said Kathleen Vasconcelos, spokesperson for the AOPA. "We don't like to see any airports closed because they are an asset to the community."

Vasconcelos likened airports to highway access ramps that provide arrival and departure opportunities for visitors and citizens. AOPA officials and AHEC doctors contend that a proposed move of MedAir to Raleigh-Durham International Airport would provide time challenges that would hinder the program.

"This year's hearing was the first significant effort to understand these issues," said Greg Pecoraro, AOPA vice president of regional affairs. "Nonetheless, the university seems determined to move forward and has given no indication that it is willing to heed the will of the legislature."

Chapel Hill Town Councilman Cam Hill, a member of the Leadership Advisory Committee formed to gather input on Carolina North planning, doesn't think the AOPA lobbying stands much of a chance.

"It's a unique occurrence that an existing airport is probably being closed and I think these guys can't believe it," Hill said. "I haven't seen any indication that this lobbying group is any match for UNC's lobbying group.

"A lot of doctors are not excited about going out to Raleigh-Durham (airport). That seems to have the most impact on the legislature, but I don't know that it's enough."

State House Speaker Joe Hackney has said that closing the airport is the university's decision, despite the committee's recommendation, and that it is unlikely to stay open if the university wants to proceed with Carolina North.

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