NextGen Air System Jeopardized by Lawmaker Interference

Benefits from the planned $42 billion investment in a new U.S. air-traffic control system depend on being able to combine and move hundreds of radar rooms that are obsolete or can’t accommodate new equipment.

That modernization effort is at risk because U.S. lawmakers have blocked several attempts to merge such Federal Aviation Administration facilities, according to agency data compiled by Bloomberg and interviews with former FAA officials.

“You tell a congressman that you’re pulling a center out of his or her district, you’re going to have a gigantic scream,” said George Donohue, a former FAA associate administrator. “When you talk about consolidating big, expensive, redundant facilities, Congress just won’t let it get done.”

The program known as NextGen involves using global-positioning satellite technology to replace radar to track aircraft and giving controllers better communication tools including an e-mail-like link to pilots. The FAA projects NextGen will save airlines $24 billion in fuel, delays and other expenses by 2020 by letting planes fly more direct routes and closer to each other.

The agency has come under congressional criticism for delays and cost overruns on some early parts of NextGen, including a new computer system to monitor traffic and serve as a backbone for much of the new technology. The bricks-and-mortar network of more than 500 radar rooms and towers form the low-tech side of the system.

Patchwork System

The radar rooms -- which range from small facilities at rural airports to centers overseeing thousands of miles of airspace -- were located based on 1950s technology, Donohue said.

That created a system in which jets flying into congested airspace near Chicago or New York might have to follow serpentine routes dictated by facility boundaries. Air-traffic centers must be merged for those routes to become more efficient, said Donohue, who is an emeritus engineering professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

More than half of those facilities were more than 30 years old, which is beyond their useful lifetime, according to a 2008 study by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. An unspecified number are so old they can’t accommodate the new NextGen equipment, it said.

Political Pressure

“The FAA’s ability to meet the future needs of the aviation system, including the implementation of NextGen, fundamentally relies on the agency’s ability to optimize our facilities and workforce,” David Grizzle, the FAA’s air-traffic chief, said in testimony at a May 31 congressional hearing.

Logs of contacts between members of Congress and the FAA obtained under public records requests by Bloomberg show at least 26 cases of lawmakers from both parties lobbying the agency on controller staffing levels or the location of air-traffic facilities from 2010 through May 2012.

The pressure included a 2010 letter from 16 of Ohio’s 18 members of Congress opposing an FAA plan to merge local Terminal Radar Approach Control rooms, or TRACONs, into a newer, centralized facility. The FAA put the effort on hold, according to an inspector general report.

Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, fought off the FAA’s attempt to close a TRACON at Palm Beach International airport in his district and move it to Miami. TRACONs oversee traffic in a radius of about 40 miles (64 kilometers) around an airport and as high as 17,000 feet (5,182 meters).

Safety Concerns

The move would have created a safety hazard and wasn’t adequately planned, Hastings said in an interview.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing more than 15,000 members, has also opposed some FAA consolidations. The union, which hasn’t objected to all such plans, wants to be consulted in merger proposals and believes they often prove costlier than first thought, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said in an e-mail.

The FAA could do a better job of selling consolidations if it had more reliable data on how many controllers were needed at each facility and by involving union members in decisions, said James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who headed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee until his defeat in 2010.

“These are big-hit, very visible issues,” Oberstar said. “You have to make the case for that and they haven’t.”

‘Flawed’ Estimates

Former FAA officials have acknowledged the agency has underestimated costs of merging facilities. A 2010 inspector general review of a proposal to move a radar room from Boise, Idaho, to Salt Lake City found cost estimates were “flawed and lacked transparency.”

Another example of a consolidation marred by surprise costs occurred in 2001, when the FAA merged several Georgia facilities into a TRACON around Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport.

Ninety-four percent of the controllers transferring from smaller locations couldn’t qualify to work the more complex traffic at their new facility. Under an agreement between the FAA and the union, those workers kept raises they’d received to transfer even after moving back to smaller TRACONs, according to the inspector general. Costs of the move were 53 percent above estimates, most of which was due to the pay raises, the report said.

Cost Increases

Though the FAA hasn’t completed plans for relocating or merging facilities, the process could involve most of the U.S.’s more than 15,000 controllers, according to a July 17 inspector general’s report. Preliminary plans to merge 51 TRACONs and en-route centers, which oversee traffic outside TRACON boundaries, from Illinois to Maine into four facilities would effect almost 3,000 controllers and more than 1,000 managers and technicians, according to the report.

Merging that many facilities presents many hurdles, according to the inspector general. The agency must persuade the controllers, some of whom are eligible to retire, to move and must negotiate with the union over retraining, moving-related bonuses and moving expenses.

Congress in a law passed Feb. 14 ordered the FAA to come up with a list of air-traffic facilities to merge. If lawmakers don’t vote down the plan, the FAA must move forward.

“The FAA continues its work to develop a comprehensive plan for the consolidation and realignment of some of the agency’s 500 existing air traffic facilities,” the agency said in an e-mailed statement.

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