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According to a new study from the Reason Foundation, FAA could save $1.7 billion initially and up to $1 billion annually by building consolidated air traffic control centers and closing 187 air traffic radar rooms.
The study comes as the agency prepares to close 149 air traffic control towers as part of $637 million in spending cuts required by the sequester. The foundation’s study reports that existing air traffic control operations could be merged into large hubs to guide air traffic across large regions of the U.S.
"Without consolidating airspace and air traffic facilities, NextGen is at risk of becoming merely a very costly upgrade of hardware and software, without the large productivity gains that should constitute a major portion of the business case for this transition," said Michael Harrison, a co-author of the Reason study.
The three key components of FAA’s shift to the Next Generation air transportation system are performance-based navigation, more precise surveillance of aircraft positions and digital communications over the current voice-based radar communication system.
Reason’s study presents a plan that would consolidate the 20 current en-route centers and 167 Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities into five high-altitude centers, eight integrated control facilities (ICFs) and 38 consolidated TRACONS to manage air traffic for the entire national airspace system (NAS).
The concept of the ICFs is to combine large and small TRACONs and pull airspace away from air traffic towers near the nation’s busiest airports to redefine how that airspace is used by aircraft. Total operating cost savings under this plan would be nearly $1 billion annually, according to the study.
The researchers report that FAA and the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) have begun to move in the direction of ICFs in the northeast, where FAA’s Joint Resource Committee is developing a business case for building the Liberty ICF, which covers the greater New York/New Jersey and Philadelphia airspace resulting from the consolidation of nine existing TRACONs.
The initial cost of building just the Liberty ICF is estimated to be $2.3 billion, and the overall northeast plan would span the airspace from New York to Chicago, at a cost of $5 billion and scheduled completion date of 2023. Reason concludes that if ATO proceeds with a focus on the northeast, combining 45 TRACONs and altering airspace controlled by four centers, it will miss the opportunity to pursue a national consolidation strategy.
The National Air Traffic Controller’s Association is supportive of a consolidation strategy and the implementation of NextGen as a way to modernize the system over the long term, however the group says the recent sequestration budget cuts are impacting the ability to fully implement the satellite-based system.
“Unfortunately, sequestration is hampering these critical efforts. The indiscriminate nature of the cuts means that both current and future operations will be impacted. We continue to urge policy makers to replace these cuts so that efforts to improve, enhance and modernize our national airspace can continue,” NATCA said in an emailed statement.
FAA projects a completion date of 2020 for its completion of its NextGen implementation, saving airlines $24 billion in fuel, delays and other expenses. More