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

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.

There could be an even bigger problem if the Salt Lake City unit suddenly went offline, as was the case when wildfires recently forced the evacuation of the TRACON outside San Diego that serves all of Southern California.

"If it happened in Salt Lake City, Idaho would be left without primary radar coverage," Griffin said.

Griffin said an outage is more likely to happen if the TRACON is moved to Salt Lake City because high-speed data lines will have to be run more than 300 miles to connect the two locations.

In Boise, the radar link is a mile from the tower, so a break could be located quickly, he added.

FAA spokesman Greg Martin said previous consolidation of air traffic control centers in the Washington, D.C., area and parts of southern and northern California have not affected safety and produced "long-term cost savings."

The FAA was caught in an apparent contradiction concerning its plans for consolidating the nation's TRACONs.

An agency press update on March 16 indicated that a reporter with the Reno Gazette was told just last week that "no decision" had been made about relocating that city's TRACON.

But a letter delivered Feb. 17 to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, stated that "the FAA plans to co-locate TRACON services for Reno at the Northern California TRACON." It was signed by Blakley, the FAA administrator.

Where are the cost savings?

Griffin, the Boise air traffic controller, predicts the FAA won't get the cost savings it expects from moving the local TRACON to Salt Lake City.

First, Griffin said nobody knows if that airport, which already has a TRACON dedicated to monitoring local air space, can accommodate a second TRACON. If not, he said, taxpayers will have to pay to build and equip a new facility.

Then there is the matter of staffing. Griffin estimates that if the TRACON remains in Boise, it and the new tower both can operate with 30 controllers and three supervisors.

But if it moves to Utah, 21 controllers and two supervisors will still be needed in Boise, while the Salt Lake City TRACON designated for Boise air space will need a minimum of 14 controllers and one supervisor.

That's a total of 38 people between the two locations, compared to 33 if the TRACON remains here.

It's estimated that the extra five positions will carry annual salaries of $80,000, plus benefits, which in less than 10 years would wipe out any savings associated with moving the TRACON and leave taxpayers to foot the ongoing bill for five new radar operators.

The costs will be even higher, Griffin said, because the high-speed data links between Boise and Salt Lake City will cost between $100,000 and $200,000 a year

FAA documents indicate that cost savings from previous TRACON consolidations haven't always materialized.

A 2003 agency analysis found that consolidating TRACONs into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport required staffing expenses that were 53 percent higher than anticipated.

As a result, "cost-effectiveness and efficiency may not be realized," the analysis concluded.

It took a year and a half for the consolidation of TRACONs in northern California into a lone facility in Sacramento to start paying off because of staffing costs that were 15 percent higher than anticipated, according to the FAA.

Griffin said the union's opposition is not based on fears that it will lose members under the FAA proposal.

"They're going to have to hire people, so we'll actually gain members," he said.

Loss of efficiency

Griffin said he thinks air traffic control in Boise will be less efficient without a TRACON, resulting in higher operating costs for all users of the airport, including airlines, charter operators, private pilots, military aircraft and firefighting bombers.

Boise controllers work both the tower and the TRACON every day, which gives them the ability to coordinate on safe procedures that allow planes to get off the ground or land more quickly, he said.

For example, when planes are departing to the east, the tower and TRACON can coordinate on what's called an opposite-direction approach landing, where a plane arriving from the east does not have to circle the airport and get in line to land from the west, a savings of about 10 flying miles.

"If you move the TRACON, opposite-direction approach landings could go away, because a controller in Salt Lake City isn't going to deviate from standard operating procedures and contact Boise to see if such a landing is possible," Griffin said. "So efficiency is traded for standardization."

For a commercial airliner, more flying time means increased operating costs that could find their way to consumers through higher ticket prices.

"It costs about $100 a minute to fly a Boeing 737," Griffin said. "Southwest Airline's entire fleet is 737s. That's going to mean higher ticket prices because somebody has to pay for that."

Tim Griffin, no relation to the Boise controller, operates Jet Stream Aviation, a Boise-area flight school that is required to teach opposite-approach landings. He worries that moving the TRACON will mean Salt Lake City radar operators will be less inclined to work with the tower in Boise so that his students can practice those landings.

"On days when we can't do it, it will mean having to cancel a lesson," he said. "That means we lose money and the student's training takes longer."

Political opposition

Griffin, the air traffic controller, credits the Idaho congressional delegation for applying enough political heat to keep the FAA from acting.

In a letter dated Jan. 11, all four of Idaho's federal lawmakers told the FAA they found "little savings opportunities" connected with moving the Boise TRACON and wondered how the local facility could be moved when other airports in the region that handle fewer departures are getting new or refurbished TRACONs.

The delegation also said it had "several concerns about safety," noting that a knowledge of the area by radar operators was "critical," and that safety is enhanced if a TRACON operator can "simply look out the window" during bad weather.

The FAA responded with a letter dated Feb. 16 that said agency officials had met with staffers for Idaho Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

It concluded: "As we explained, we are working to complete an analysis on the matter. As soon as the analysis is finished, we will let you know."

"It was the first response we had received from the FAA, even though we contacted the agency via e-mail about the issue in late November or early December," said Otter spokesman Mark Warbis. "The agency has given us no further indication of what it plans to do."

Bieter added: "The Treasure Valley is one of the fastest-growing regions of the country. Our airport is seeing record passenger traffic. So it really doesn't make sense to shift a crucial part of our air-traffic control system to Salt Lake.

"It will reduce our runway capacity; it could have safety implications. And in the end, it probably won't save money."