Bipartisan bloc working to keep air traffic control facilities in Garden City and Ronkonkoma
Driving past 1515 Stewart Avenue, there’s a non descript fenced-in compound with a tower, that upon first glance resembles a cable television outpost. But inside, directions are being provided to a steady stream of incoming and outgoing aircraft from four of the largest airports in the tri-state area.
These crucial directives could be transmitted from further afield if the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) goes through with plans to relocate air traffic control facilities in Garden City and Ronkonkoma to a new site in upstate New York. At a recent press conference held at the front of the aforementioned Stewart Avenue address, a bipartisan Long Island congressional delegation laid out its plan to keep the facilities in their current locations.
Joining together as one on Monday, July 9, were the Association for a Better Long Island (ABLI) along with Reps. Carolyn McCarthy, Peter King, Steve Israel and Tim Bishop and members of the region’s aviation, business, labor and educational communities. This unified front was created after Bishop, a member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, alerted Long Island members of the New York State Senate and Assembly of the FAA’s plans.
The reaction was immediate as political differences were set aside for the greater good. On Wednesday, June 6, a letter was sent to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood containing the signatures of the four congressional members who appeared at this press conference along with Congressman Gary Ackerman and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. In it, a request was made for the FAA to retain Long Island as the site for its future facility.
“All of us that represent all of Long Island are speaking with one voice here,” Bishop explained. “We’re not Republicans. We’re not Democrats. We’re Long Islanders that are determined to see to it that this facility remains here and the stakes are pretty high.”
A Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility contains radar operations from which air traffic controllers direct aircraft during the departure, descent and approach phases of flight. The FAA plans to build a $95 million air traffic control facility within 150 miles of New York City.
The Garden City TRACON facility and the Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in Ronkonkoma would be consolidated into a single Integrated Control Facility (ICF) for JFK, LaGuardia, Newark and Westchester County airports. Groundbreaking on a new facility is expected in 2017, giving the two Long Island properties five years to become the FAA’s landing spot.
“[The FAA] wants a zip code by the end of this year,” McCarthy stated. “In January, they want an address because this is going to move pretty fast. [The FAA] still has to go back to all their members because they’re going to find out how many people might not go.”
Approximately 50 or 60 acres of land would be needed to build a new facility. The FAA is surveying sites including Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh and the Albany and Poughkeepsie areas.
“This particular TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) does a phenomenal job [especially] seeing the type of work they do, day in and day out,” King said. “Seeing the level of expertise and experience that these men and women have. I’m glad to be on board with this. This is a united effort by Long Island, by New York. We have the space, we have the locations, so this is where it should remain.”
The new facility would house air traffic controllers as part of NextGen, a satellite navigation system for commercial flights, instead of ground-based radar systems. The Long Island delegation met with the FAA on Thursday, June 7.
“We think we have a really good argument here,” said McCarthy. “We are determined to put the best foot forward. As long as they stay on Long Island, we’ll all be happy.”
FAA reps said in a statement that, “as part of the site selection process, the agency is engaging with stakeholders including labor organizations and local officials, and will continue to do so throughout the summer.” The FAA has done preliminary engineering and design work for the new facility, but a final location has not been determined at this time.
Should the FAA go through with its plan, Long Island’s already weakened economy would take a further hit in the way of higher unemployment and lost revenue.
ABLI President Jan Burman predicted that the loss of so many jobs could result in a $90 million hole.
“These jobs are part of the high-tech skill set we are known and respected for and losing them to other parts of the state or nation would be strategically harmful,” Burman affirmed.
Rep. Israel was no less adamant about the negative impact the FAA plan could have.
“We’re talking about 900 jobs and that’s important to all of us but it may not be as important to the FAA. They have their own mission and I understand that,” he admitted before adding, “We have presented proposals to the FAA in order to save taxpayer dollars, save jobs and ensure a more efficient and safe travel experience for America’s fliers. This is not just a matter of the economy and jobs. This is a matter of common sense.”
National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) reps said Monday that they support merging the facilities, but not at the expense of the loss of jobs on Long Island. NATCA represents more than 600 aviation safety professionals at the two sites.
“NATCA supports facility consolidations and realignments where they enhance the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System. We believe the New York ICF can do both and also save taxpayers’ money,” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said. “The first step needs to be the decision to keep this facility on Long Island.”
ABLI economist Dr. Thomas Conoscenti estimated that $198 million would disappear should the two Long Island facilities close down.
“We’re talking $90 million worth of payroll plus jobs, real estate taxes, sales taxes—it adds up to quite a bit of money,” ABLI past president Ed Blumenfeld added. “We got the noise, we might as well have the jobs.”