A Call to FAA

Reno-Tahoe International director Krys Bart offers suggestions on how FAA can be more in touch with the real-world needs of U.S. airports.

Approach is a word that should have great meaning to the Federal Aviation Administration. Unfortunately, FAA sometimes misses the approach when it comes to dealing with its stakeholders. Developing an understanding of community relations, as well as an appreciation of each airport the agency serves, will go a long way in helping FAA avoid controversy and project slowdowns.

On a daily basis, airport directors across the country talk with staff members and consultants about their approach to customers and the community. People with jobs that are driven by technology and process sometimes fail to realize that a project will live and die based on its presentation, rather than just its technical merits. In today’s world of increased public access and environmental consciousness, projects are often judged on how they are brought to the community, rather than on what they can do for the community.

Today more than ever, airports are integral parts of the communities they serve. What FAA often fails to recognize is the need to understand each airport as it relates to its surrounding community. Recent events in Reno are prime examples of the agency’s disconnect with its actual stakeholders.

Item #1: AN ASR-11

Reno-Tahoe International has a need for an ASR-11 radar system. The FAA began working on site selection for the project without coordinating with the airport or the surrounding communities. Even though Reno is surrounded by numerous mountain peaks, the FAA selected the one peak that happened to be the centerpiece of a planned community park that was intended to be a cornerstone of future community development.

Had FAA been coordinating with the airport, the Reno-Tahoe staff would have steered the FAA toward one of the other mountain peaks, many on government-owned land that would have met FAA’s criteria. Instead, FAA moved ahead without considering the local community or the airport’s role in the region.

The result: controversy and a need for fence-mending between the airport and the community. The project eventually stalled and another mountain peak was selected — one not in conflict with a community plan.

Item #2: A New Tower

When FAA proposed a new air traffic control tower at Reno-Tahoe International, the staff recommended a site on the east side of the airport. The land was owned by the airport and provided excellent sightlines for controllers. But FAA again went its own way. For years, the agency recommended other tower sites and later dropped them from consideration. After spending years looking for another site, FAA finally settled on the parcel originally recommended by the airport.

Item #3: A Story of Delays

Reno-Tahoe International Air-port’s ILS system is the best example of FAA’s disconnect with its stakeholders. For years, Reno had been asking the agency to replace its ILS system, which repeatedly broke down in the snowy weather for which it is designed. Finally, the system failed on Thanksgiving weekend 2004, in the middle of a snowstorm. Hundreds of flights were diverted and thousands of travelers were stranded for up to three days. When Reno publicly expressed its anger over the failed FAA system, an FAA spokesperson tried to downplay the circumstances and blamed the airport for the failure.

FAA’s response fueled a media frenzy when the story went national. It was reported on network television from New York to San Diego. Unlike FAA, the media sympathized with holiday travelers left stranded.

Thanks to the intervention of the Nevada Congressional Delegation, a new ILS was installed before Thanksgiving 2005. However, the new ILS broke down again just before President’s Day weekend 2006 — one of the busiest ski weekends of the year. Again, an FAA spokesperson, failing to understand the Reno-Tahoe community, scoffed at the airport’s predicament and anger over the failure. It took the strong intervention of the Nevada Congressional Delegation for FAA to admit it needs to work more closely with the airport on the issue.

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