RONKONKOMA, N.Y. – A new air traffic control center that will serve the busy New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia metropolitan areas will be built somewhere in New York, although a decision on an exact location is still likely many months away, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Monday.
"We're very early in a process for a very important decision," Huerta told reporters after touring Long Island MacArthur Airport, one of the sites local officials have proposed for the new facility. The FAA has announced a $2.3 billion modernization plan that will consolidate 49 aging air traffic facilities in the Northeast down to four by 2023.
So far, Huerta said, $95 million has been allocated for preliminary site review, cost analysis and design preparations, but he noted actual construction of the new air traffic control center is expected to be $220 million.
"We have selected New York as the first of our integrated control facilities," he said after the tour of the regional airport on eastern Long Island. Currently, Southwest Airlines is the largest carrier operating at MacArthur.
Business groups, unions and elected officials, including the region's congressional delegation — three Democrats and one Republican — have lobbied to keep the FAA operations on Long Island, where about 900 employees currently work at two facilities, in Westbury and Ronkonkoma.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, along with Democratic Reps. Steve Israel and Timothy Bishop, and Republican town board members from Islip — which operates MacArthur Airport — joined Huerta on a tour of the airport grounds before the news conference. Schumer had said he recently received a commitment from Huerta to keep operations in New York, but Monday's announcement was the FAA acting administrator's first public comment on the issue.
"Our message is clear: the FAA needs to make Long Island the final destination for this new state-of-the-art air traffic control center," Schumer said.
Israel, who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the House, sought to emphasize to Huerta that keeping the air traffic control center on Long Island has bipartisan support.
"What he's seen here is a commitment from local officials on both sides of the aisle to work with the FAA to make sure this decision makes sense for the FAA," Israel said.
Huerta said FAA employees would be consulted in the decision-making process on where to locate operations. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association issued a statement this month urging that the facility remain on Long Island.
The Transportation Department's inspector general issued a report last week noting that the consolidation effort is part of the FAA's program to replace deteriorating and outdated equipment. In February, President Barack Obama signed legislation to modernize the nation's aviation system, speeding up the switch from radar to an air traffic control system based on GPS technology. The move to upgrade the New York facilities is the first step in that effort, officials said.
Earlier this year, a government watchdog charged that airline safety regulators have lagged in responding to urgent safety problems at several locations around the country. The Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistle-blowers, said controllers at the Ronkonkoma facility — one of the world's busiest — slept in the control room at night, left shifts early, used personal electronic devices while on duty, ignored proper procedures and manipulated work schedules to gain overtime pay.
Imprecise language used by a controller at the Ronkonkoma facility contributed to a near collision between an American Airlines jet with 259 people aboard and two Air Force transport planes southeast of New York City in January 2011.
The FAA has since replaced most of the center's top managers.