FAA Should Shut Most Air-Traffic Radar Rooms, Study Says

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration could save $1.7 billion up front and about $1 billion more annually by closing 187 air-traffic radar rooms and building consolidated centers to control flights over large regions, a study found.

Most of the U.S. centers and regional approach control facilities “can and should be shut down,” wrote the report authors, who included Robert Poole, transportation director for the Reason Foundation, and Michael Harrison, the FAA’s former director of architectural and systems engineering.

“They can be replaced by a much smaller number of facilities, many of which can be designed from the outset to function in the from-anywhere-to-anywhere paradigm,” the report said.

The study’s conclusions point to cost savings available to the FAA apart from automatic budget cuts imposed at most U.S. government agencies.

The $1 billion in annual savings, which the report said can be gained in productivity, equipment and facility maintenance, amounts to about 6 percent of the agency’s annual budget.

A planned $42 billion redesign of the U.S. air-traffic control system could help consolidate many of the FAA’s 561 staffed facilities by upgrading technology so controllers won’t need to work below the airspace they manage, the Reason report said.

Under the redesign, flying would be made more efficient due to technology that allows more precise aircraft tracking, streamlined communications and more direct routing with fewer delays, said Los Angeles-based Reason, which advocates for smaller government.

Political Challenges

The authors didn’t calculate the costs of building new facilities to replace the closed ones or address the obstacles to uprooting employees including unionized controllers.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union representing 15,000 controllers, has objected to closing facilities in the past in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Boise, Idaho.

“NATCA supports facility consolidations and realignments where they enhance operational services and the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System,” the union said in an e-mail statement. It is working with FAA on a plan to merge facilities in the New York region, it said in the statement.

‘Deteriorating, Outdated’

Maximizing the benefits from the so-called NextGen air-traffic control upgrade project would require moving hundreds of radar rooms that are obsolete or can’t accommodate new equipment. That plan may be at risk after U.S. lawmakers blocked several attempts to merge FAA facilities, Bloomberg reported in November. The agency has more than 500 radar rooms, smaller facilities than the other types where controllers work.

The Transportation Department inspector general, in a July report, said “many” FAA air-traffic control facilities are “deteriorating and outdated,” especially considering the technology upgrades being done as part of NextGen. It called on the agency to speed up its 20-year facility consolidation plan.

NextGen will use global-positioning satellite technology to replace radar to track aircraft and give 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.

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