Congresswoman Wants FAA to OK New Tower at Palm Springs, Calif., Airport.

Regional politicians and airports officials are calling for a new traffic control tower at Palm Springs International Airport to prevent future accidents but federal regulators say a replacement is not needed.

Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, recently wrote to the FAA's director this month asking the agency to move quickly to approve and construct a new tower.

"Time is of the essence," she wrote. "This is an opportunity for the FAA to be proactive in addressing a critical safety concern before it results in serious injury or loss of life."

Airport officials say the current tower, built in 1967, needs to be replaced in order to avoid collisions as the airport's number of flights continues to grow.

The Palm Springs region has seen exponential growth in new residents and visitors, which has resulted in more airport passengers. During the first half of this year, the airport saw 4.5 percent more passengers than last year, with 845,313 arriving or departing the airport. The airport had 98,000 flights arriving and departing in 2004, according to the Palm Springs airport Web site.

But a recent audit by the Federal Aviation Administration concluded that the airport's tower is safe, said FAA spokesman Donn Walker.

"Old does not mean unsafe," said Walker. "If you can provide safe air traffic ... there's no reason to build a new tower."

Even so, there aren't enough planes coming and going, said Walker. "The number of passengers is meaningless," he said.

Walker said the FAA intends to replace the tower eventually, but it isn't a priority. The cost can be anywhere between $ 15 million to $ 50 million and the FAA doesn't have the money, said Walker.

Marvin Smith, a former air traffic controller on March Air Force Base and now a program director at Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the FAA's unwillingness to replace the tower isn't unique to Palm Springs Airport.

"Right now, it's a pretty hard sell to get the federal government to come up with any money," said Smith. "If they haven't had any accidents ... they have a pretty weak case," said Smith referring to Palm Springs Airport.

One reason the FAA hasn't made Palm Springs a priority is because flight activity there is low compared to larger airports like LAX, Ontario International Airport and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Walker said.

The FAA is constructing a $ 54 million tower at Phoenix. In 2003 it also funded a new tower for Grand Canyon Airport in Arizona, which handles about 100,000 take-offs and landings each year.

"We measure airport towers not in terms of their size or how tall they are but how busy they are," said Walker. "In the case of Palm Springs Airport, it's been flat for the last ten years."

Richard Walsh, Palm Springs Airport's director, said that the number of flights -- while not above Sept. 11 levels -- continues to grow and warrants a new tower.

"We just haven't modernized the system," said Smith, referring to most air traffic control towers across the country. "We've got Fred Flintstone equipment."


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