New Control Towers Must Accommodate Older Technology Before Opening

June 7, 2016
Two newly built airport towers designed for electronic plane tracking must be extensively remodeled before they can operate, union officials say.

Two newly built airport towers designed for electronic plane tracking must be extensively remodeled before they can operate, union officials say.  

In order to also accommodate older technology that uses paper strips to track planes taxing and taking off, the new state-of-art towers in San Francisco and Las Vegas will need to be remodeled to not rely solely and exclusively on electronic tracking.  

The prototype electronic strip system for tracking, President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Paul Rinaldi told, is too unstable, and controllers must be able to transition quickly back to the traditional paper strip tracking if need be. The current towers were designed without the tables, printers and hanging spaces necessary for the traditional tracking method. 

McCarran International Airport's tower in Las Vegas would not be difficult to remodel, Rinaldi told, but the San Francisco International Airport has no extra space.  

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had continued to use the paper strips to track places, which is often times time-consuming, and was under the assumption the new technology would work when the administrations remodeled the towers.  

FAA's head of air traffic operations, Terri Bristol, told she wasn't aware of the problems raised by Rinaldi until a "recent aviation symposium", but said "we'll figure out what we need to do" if the electronic system was not reliable.  

The current prototype is being used by Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and has been in use for several years. The tower has had several problems and frequently required controllers to revert to using the paper strip system, Rinaldi said at a discussion of legislation sponsored chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., to remove air traffic control operations from the FAA in favor of a private, nonprofit corporation. 

Most recently, the systems server crashed on May 16, according to a union spokesman, Doug Church.  

Construction of the towers, both originally expected to begin operation in the fall of 2016, cost the FAA millions. The San Francisco tower cost $77 million, with the airport spending $50 million to re move the old tower, according to airport spokesperson Dough Yakel. The Las Vegas tower was estimated to cost $100 million by the FAA.   

The FAA also announced last week the construction of a third new airport tower using the prototype electronic tracking system in Charlotte, North Carolina. Church said the design will allow room for the fallback paper strip system.