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NATCA: Outmoded tech, facilities

Commercial flight in America gets safer each decade, with fewer accidents and dwindling numbers of passenger injuries and deaths. And a big part of the reason is the unswerving excellence of the nation’s more than 14,000 professional, civil service air traffic controllers. 

But no matter how able today’s ATC community is, the controllers themselves are calling out yesterday’s antiquated workplaces and outdated technology they must bear with on the job. 

“We now have an historic opportunity to invest in our nation’s aviation system, both its physical infrastructure and technology, to ensure the NAS remains the gold standard around the world,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) President Paul Rinaldi testified before Congress this week. “Upgrading our aging air traffic control facility infrastructure is a top priority for NATCA.” 

Rinaldi testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation. He went on to list some of the obsolete features of the workplace and tools controllers have to cope with. 

“The FAA’s Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) are almost 60 years old—and many of the towers and Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities (TRACONS) are in desperate need of repair or replacement,” Rinaldi stated. “Many of these facilities have exceeded their life expectancy, while others need replacement of critical physical infrastructure systems including roofs, windows, HVAC systems, elevators, and plumbing.”

The NATCA chief noted that the FAA runs more than 300 air traffic control facilities across the country. These are of “varying ages and conditions.” The 20 ARTCC’s in the contiguous 48 states were developed in the 1960s. The TRACONs have seen, on average, a quarter-century of service. Additional combined TRACON/Towers are even older. 

Rinaldi points out that the result is a combination of safety and efficiency issues that affect employees, but also others that potentially bear on air safety for everyone. These need prompt and adequate resources brought to bear, he urged. On the other hand, Rinaldi acknowledged that a smaller portion—approximately one-third—of ATC facility deficiencies present only “minor or no concerns.” 

Overall, Rinaldi and NATCA therefore counseled, Congress should “support a robust funding authorization for air traffic control infrastructure.” 

“Although the FAA has begun the process of addressing its aging infrastructure through a combination of realignments, sustaining and maintaining some facilities, and replacing a handful of others,” Rinaldi stated, “that process has been slow and hampered by the stop-and-go funding stream.”

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