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.

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.

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