Critics Want Proof of Savings to Move TRACON

Relocating part of Boise's air traffic control system to Salt Lake City will save $2.5 million over 25 years, according to a preliminary Federal Aviation Administration cost analysis.

That figure, however, does not take into account millions in additional air traffic controller costs that would wipe out any savings, according to the agency's critics.

The FAA's calculations will come under fire Wednesday when agency officials try to justify moving Boise's Terminal Radar Approach Control system, or TRACON, to Salt Lake City at a public forum.

Among those expected to attend are Gov. Jim Risch, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and a contingent of Treasure Valley businessmen headed by Micron Chairman Steve Appleton.

FAA officials declined to discuss their early cost estimates, insisting that staffers were preparing a new set of numbers in advance of Wednesday's meeting.

"But we're convinced that it would save money, if a final decision is made (to move the system)" said agency spokeswoman Laura Brown.

That has not always been the case in the years since the FAA began its policy of consolidating TRACONs.

A 2003 agency analysis found that consolidating surrounding TRACONs into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport resulted in staffing expenses that were 53 percent higher than expected.

Consolidating the northern California TRACONs into the Sacramento center did not produce any immediate savings, primarily because of staffing costs that were 15 percent higher than anticipated, according to the FAA analysis.

So far, the FAA has been reluctant to offer details of its plans for Boise.

When pressed by the Idaho congressional delegation, the FAA provided a single sheet of paper with figures. Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who will chair the meeting, was less than impressed.

"The current cost analysis is rudimentary at best and long overdue," Craig said last week in a statement. "I hope they will provide a detailed cost analysis, documenting their methodology, during the public meeting."

Mark Warbis, aide to Idaho Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter, the Republican candidate for governor, called the agency's cost analysis "insignificant."

"It was something that could have been slapped together in half an hour," Warbis said.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who is scheduled to speak at the meeting, says the FAA is overlooking the economic ramifications of moving "such an important part of our air traffic control system out of state."

The TRACON is the part of the air traffic control system that tracks an aircraft shortly after takeoff, and just before landing.

Twenty-four controllers staff the combined tower and TRACON at Boise Airport Tower.

The FAA plan calls for relocating 15 controllers to Salt Lake City, which would leave nine to staff the airport tower, which handles only landings and takeoffs.

Mark Griffin, president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says staffing the tower alone requires 17 people. That would mean eight new controllers would be needed in Boise, each with a pay package approaching $100,000.

"That's going to eat up that $2.5 million in savings in a hurry," Griffin said.

Boise Airport Administrator John Anderson said money will be an issue for controllers relocated to Salt Lake City.

Under the FAA proposal, there would be two TRACONs operating in the same location -- the Boise one handling traffic at an airport 300 miles from Boise,and one handling traffic arriving and departing from Salt Lake City International Airport.

Anderson believes the Boise controllers would be paid less than their Salt Lake City counterparts.

If so, it would not be long before the Boise operators would want the better-paying jobs in the Salt Lake TRACON, leaving Boise with new operators unfamiliar with the Treasure Valley, Anderson said.

"We've asked the FAA for more information on this, but we really haven't gotten it," Anderson said.

Griffin also takes issue with parts of the FAA cost analysis that project it would cost $670,000 to replace equipment in a Salt Lake City TRACON every 10 years, but $2 million to replace the same equipment in Boise.

"Equipment is equipment," Griffin said. "What's the difference if you replace it in Salt Lake City or in Boise?"

The FAA will have more than the controllers and elected leaders to deal with Wednesday.

Michael S. Pape , president of the Idaho Business Aviation Association, which represents corporate pilots and other industry members, said he expects his members will come from as far as Sandpoint to oppose the FAA plan.

"I see nothing but bad news coming out of this," Pape said.

The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce has called for area business to show up and oppose the plan, too.

Tim Griffin, who operates Jet Stream Aviation, a Boise-area flight school, plans to be at the meeting to argue in favor of the Boise TRACON.

One of his flight instructors, Danny Anslinger, said moving the TRACON would slow the certification process for students who must learn how to perform an opposite-approach landing -- a technique where planes approaching from the east coordinate with the Boise TRACON on a maneuver that allows them to land quickly by ducking beneath aircraft that are departing toward the east.

The alternative is to circle the airport and get in line to land, which adds to operating costs.

Without the Boise TRACON, fewer opposite-approach training flights will be allowed, Anslinger said, resulting in a slowdown in small-plane traffic at the airport.

Griffin, no relation to the air traffic controller, worries that will spell trouble in the future.

"We need to stop this, if we're going to continue turning out safe pilots," Griffin said.

Copyright: The Idaho Statesman -- 7/05/06>>

News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.