Legislature to hold hearings on AHEC, airport closing
Editor’s note: This story will be updated around 1 p.m. today with remarks from today’s hearing.
By Kirk Ross
University administrators, Area Health Education Centers officials and a host of physicians from UNC Hospitals will appear before a joint House and Senate committee today (Thursday) to review plans to close Horace Williams Airport and its impact on the university’s Medical Air program.
The North Carolina House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on Education and Health and Human Services called the hearing at the behest of House Speaker Joe Hackney, after some doctors recently reiterated their objection to plans to move flight operations for AHEC to Raleigh Durham International Airport, according to AHEC director Dr. Thomas Bacon.
Bacon said in an interview Wednesday afternoon that Hackney asked Orange County Rep. Verla Insko to convene the meeting after receiving objections from Dr. Bill Henry, chair of the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Cardiology.
Bacon said Henry has been critical of the move.
“They’re the biggest users of the planes,” Bacon said. “The main concerns are over travel time and time taking off and landing.”
Bacon said that Henry and other doctors estimate the RDU base of operations could add one hour a day to their travel time to and from the airport, more than the time originally estimated by a consultant AHEC worked with to find the best spot for the move.
Bacon said AHEC and the university remain committed to the move though, and have been working on plans for a new facility at RDU.
“We have no plans to go elsewhere,” Bacon said. “We’re totally focused on RDU.”
The hearings were part of a deal struck last session after some legislators resisted the closing of the airport, mostly out of concern about how the move to RDU would affect AHEC. A vigorous lobbying effort by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which advocates on behalf of private pilots, also caught the ear of legislators.
The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees passed a resolution in May of 2005 saying they would not close the airport and move AHEC’s Medical Air operations until they were ready to start the Carolina North project.
An analysis using Federal Aviation Authority standards done in the early stages of the planning for Carolina North said that the airport would conflict with the design and use for the buildings envisioned. Since then, university officials have indicated that the flat, already-paved airport grounds would be a prime spot for the early stages of Carolina North.
In March, the Board of Trustees approved a plan for construction of a new hangar and office space for Medical Air at RDU near an existing Department of Transportation facility. The project is expected to cost roughly $3.5 million.
In addition to Drs. Henry and Bacon, also scheduled to testify at the hearing are Kevin Fitzgerald, executive associate dean for finance and administration, UNC-School of Medicine; Carolina North executive director Jack Evans, pediatrics professor Dr. James Loehr, Dr. Marianne Muhlebach, Dr. Ali Calikoglu, Duke oncologist Dr. Linda Sutton, Medical Air Operations director Jim Hotelling, Medical Air chief pilot Alan Fearing and WCHL owner Jim Heavner, a pilot and plane owner who has been critical of the university’s move to close the airport.