WASHINGTON, D.C. — Air traffic control facilities are in such bad repair that the FAA told Congressional investigators that it estimates the backlog of maintenance costs is between $250 million and $350 million — yet the last two years the administration has requested less than $60 million annually for maintenance.
A Congressional committee’s oversight and investigations staff recently conducted a study and found what Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) called “”far too many aging buildings, which have not been properly maintained over the years.”” Problems included leaky roofs, mold, animal and insect infestation, poor air quality, heating, ventilation and air conditioning problems, space limitations, the presence of asbestos, general unsanitary conditions, and broken and damaged equipment. Oberstar is chair of the full committee on transportation and infrastructure.
FAA officials report that terminal radar control (TRACON), towers, and en-route ATC facilities are relatively old and, over all, are in “”poor to average”” condition.
Air traffic controllers were more specific. Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), showed photographs of facility problems to the committee, including mold in the Detroit tower, buckets to catch water from leaky roofs in the San Jose, Atlanta, and Springfield, Ill., towers, water leaks and mold at Grand Rapids and the Chicago center, and mist on tower windows that prevented controllers from seeing airfields and approaches clearly. He said more than 30 facilities had asbestos problems, while more than 100 facilities suffer through heating and air conditioning problems. The northern California TRACON has snakes in the building during summer and fall months, while the tower at St. Louis faces a challenge with bats, Forrey declared. He concluded his testimony by revealing that five days prior to testifying before the committee, the following report went out from Bristol, Tenn., rerouting traffic because of water damage in the TRACON: “”TRI APH OPERATING OUT OF TOWER CAB DUE TO WATER DAMAGE IN TRACON…IF PRACTICAL REROUTE ALL EN ROUTE TRAFFIC AROUND TRI APH AIRSPACE.””
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), ranking member of the full committee, and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) came to the defense of the FAA. Mica cited the General Service Administration’s report that most government buildings are more than 50 years old and in need of repair. Petri said over the years Congress has authorized funding to maintain facilities but has underappropriated and earmarked the money. “”By the time it reaches the FAA,”” he said, “”the agency often does not have the adequate discretion to spend it.””
The FAA’s witness, Bruce Johnson, vice president of terminal services, conceded some facilities should be replaced, but added the agency is trying to consolidate facilities and preparing to transition to the next generation air traffic control system (NextGen). Consolidation has been a point of contention between FAA and NATCA.
Mica contended it doesn’t make sense for the FAA to maintain old and obsolete facilities when it is moving toward the next generation of air traffic control. He added that privatization could be another way to save money. He chided his colleagues for what he called “”interference with FAA decisions regarding airspace redesign and facility management, consolidation or closure.””
The FAA manages more than 22,000 facilities. This report and hearing dealt only with facilities used in air traffic control. Controllers and FAA management have been at odds several years.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent