FAA Plan to Move Radar Approach System Doesn't Fly in Boise

The Treasure Valley aviation community is opposing an FAA cost-cutting plan that many say may actually cost taxpayers more, slow traffic at Boise Airport, raise local ticket prices and potentially compromise safety.


Mar. 20--The Treasure Valley aviation community is opposing an FAA cost-cutting plan that many say may actually cost taxpayers more, slow traffic at Boise Airport, raise local ticket prices and potentially compromise safety.

Industry veterans say the Federal Aviation Administration wants to move the Terminal Radar Approach Control system -- or TRACON -- now housed at the airport to Salt Lake City to save $5 million on the price of a planned new tower for the Boise Airport.

A TRACON is the part of the three-tiered air traffic control system that ensures that departing planes are on course and at safe altitude, and that arriving traffic is properly positioned to land.

Observers believe the FAA thinks that by eliminating the Boise TRACON it can shave $5 million in equipment costs off the estimated $22 million cost of a new tower scheduled to be built at Boise Airport.

The FAA is being tight-lipped about its plans for Boise, except to insist that no decision has been made yet.

But TRACON workers say a move is imminent and are waging a lobbying effort to stop the FAA. They've won support from all four members of the Idaho congressional delegation, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and local pilots.

The proposal prompted Boise Mayor Dave Bieter to issue a statement comparing the idea to "cutting off a plane's wings to save weight."

An internal FAA study released in late 2005 showed that Boise Airport was one of 15 facilities facing "collocation" this year. In the last month, Reno, Nev., Palm Springs, Calif., and Palm Beach, Fla., were informed that they were losing their TRACONs.

Meanwhile, after meetings between the FAA and congressional aides failed to produce results, Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig was preparing to take matters into his own hands by calling FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakley to voice his opposition, according to aide Mike Tracy.

"I really believe that our congressional delegation is the only reason we haven't received a letter telling us the TRACON is moving to Salt Lake," said Mark Griffin, president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

A contingent of FAA representatives will be in Boise to confer with airport administrators this Thursday, but the agency will not tell anybody the reason for the visit, said airport director John Anderson.

"The FAA has not conducted this process in a very transparent manner," Anderson said. "What little we know we've had to get off the grapevine."

Savings or higher costs?

Local air traffic controllers, the Idaho congressional delegation, Boise officials and area pilots all predict that moving the TRACON would backfire and actually increase the government's long-term costs.

At best, they foresee a domino effect of reduced airport efficiency leading to increasing operating costs for commercial airlines, which may mean higher ticket prices for consumers.

In the worst-case scenario, public safety could be compromised in the name of cost savings, they add.

A relocated TRACON would still have to monitor 30 miles of air space around Boise Airport, but from Salt Lake City, 300 miles away.

Griffin said a radar operator sitting in Salt Lake City won't be accustomed to continuously changing air traffic that can mean dealing with a single-engine plane one minute, a 150-passenger Boeing 737 the next, or a fast-moving military jet followed by an airborne tanker that could appear on radar at the last minute as it returns to Boise after dousing a summer forest fire north of the city.

Greg Poe, a Boise-based air show pilot who spends half the year on the road, said TRACON operators in Boise have to know the Treasure Valley if they're going to be able to help a pilot in trouble.

"If you're having engine problems, you want local people who understand this area, who know the terrain and its landmarks, not somebody who's sitting hundreds of miles away," he said.

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