NextGen Efficiency, not Politics, should be the Primary Decision Criteria for Site Selection

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ARTICLE: FAA scouts for home of new mega centre

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This UK-based publication has picked up a local story that the FAA is searching for a site to consolidate facilities (en route and TRACON) in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas. Both articles chronicle the efforts of Albany County and Long Island (the present site of an ARTCC and a TRACON) to convince the FAA that their community would be the best place to locate the $220 million, 250,000-square-foot building and a parking lot that could accommodate vehicles for up to 800 employees. In these economic times, the 1,000 six figure jobs are the most attractive part of the site competition.

The stories also mention that NATCA (the union for the employees) and Sen. Schumer (the UK correspondent unfamiliar with US government labeled him “state senator”) have weighed in heavily for selecting Long Island as the site for the consolidated facility. The Senator represents all of the state of New York so his support for the Islip site is not purely constituent based.

This and the selection of a Northeast Integrated Control and High Ops Facility are elements of the FAA’s NextGen reorganization of the technology and location of the FAA’s air traffic system. This historic expenditure of federal funds is to not just modernize, but actually reconstitute how air traffic navigation is managed. Inherent in this transformation is a critical, technology-based change in the job description.

The old technology personnel are controllers; they direct the aircraft within their scope. Under a satellite-based navigation system, the flight options will become virtually infinite; the FAA person, charged with human interface between the aircraft and the AT system, will be a manager, requiring a new skill set. This change in technology may also mean that the people, who have worked in the FAA facilities, may not be the best qualified to perform the work with the NextGen machines.

NATCA’s and Senator Schumer’s support for the Long Island site appears to be essentially a position designed to prefer the existing workforce for the new, different job. It is possible that some of the existing controllers can qualify to meet the requirements of the new managerial positions. The site selection should be based primarily, if not solely, on the long term economics of the facility and should not impose a preference for the old workforce.

The selection of a site for the air traffic control center and of the Northeast Integrated Control and High Ops Facility will be a test of whether the NextGen “business” will be based on government efficiency. There are many more local decisions which must be made on similar objective criteria. If Senator Schumer is able to exercise his political clout and if NATCA is able to skew the selection to favor existing controllers, then the benefits of NextGen may be substantially less than forecast and the cost/benefit analysis that supports the funding and taxing needed for these changes may not be attained.

The people who are being asked to pay for NextGen are watching this decision. Unfortunately, the final decision on how to finance NextGen has not been made, thanks to the political turmoil in Washington. If the FAA is compelled by outside forces to site this new facility at a location that ignores the new economics and business model, then it can be expected that the aviation industry will withdraw its support for NextGen.

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