Rockford airport shoots for new control tower
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SCOTT MORGAN | RRSTAR.COM
By Brian Leaf
Posted Nov 27, 2011 @ 06:00 AM
ROCKFORD — Photographers have been working at Chicago Rockford International Airport recently, capturing hundreds of images of the airport and its environs.
The Federal Aviation Administration will use the photos to build a virtual airport, a computer-designed digital replica. It could be the first step in replacing the airport’s 53-year-old air traffic control tower.
Rockford has rallied around its airport as a key driver of economic growth, and officials say a new tower will modernize operations and make the airport more desirable to passenger and cargo airlines.
But the FAA is in congressional crosshairs, and the call for budget cuts are sure to flare up again in coming weeks as it seeks a new funding bill to keep operating.
And because the FAA owns, operates and decides whether and when to replace its towers, a new high-tech, brick-and-mortar air traffic control tower in Rockford may be stuck on a computer hard drive for years.
“There’s no guarantee the facility will be replaced immediately, but we recognize it is aging and we’re looking ahead down the road, since the process of eventual replacement takes many years,” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.
“It is essential (that) airspace around an airport with as much traffic as Rockford be controlled for safety,” Cory says. “An airport cannot grow in passenger service without the services of air traffic control.”
Airport commissioners are bent on leveraging current facilities into growth. In March they set three-year goals to double passenger traffic to 330,000 travelers and get a top 20 ranking among the nation’s busiest cargo airports. In 2010 it ranked 24th.
Bharat Puri, chairman of the airport board, said the tower in Rockford gives the region a competitive advantage — adjacent to Chicago’s airspace but without the congestion.
Puri said he’s been told it will cost $50 million to run and equip a new tower here, a facility he says is essential to the airport’s future.
“That’s what airlines like,” Puri said. “If the air traffic control tower goes away, we become part of Chicago’s airspace,” although there are no plans to close the tower.
But there are plans to fund fewer new ones. In fiscal 2010 the FAA estimated it would spend $176 million replacing towers, according to its annual capital improvement plan. In 2012, the plan projected spending at only $51.6 million and $100 million a year between 2013 and 2016.
But even as photos of Rockford’s airport are being compiled for a future project, its future seems dim. The Washington Post summed it up recently with this headline: “Chances for long-term FAA funding bill seen as bleak.”
Advocates, however, believe Rockford’s need should be a priority.
“It’s old and outdated,” said Puri, who likens it to an aging house into which its owners keep pouring money.
The tower was remodeled in 2007 with new heating and cooling systems, efficient lighting, and other upgrades, the FAA says.
There are two operations within the tower complex, where 35 air traffic controllers and 12 technical support staff work. In the tower’s glassed-in cab, controllers visually watch planes within a five-mile radius of the airport as they take off or land. Other controllers monitoring aircraft up to 55 miles away by radar are located in an adjacent building at the base of the tower.
Controllers staff the tower 24 hours a day, seven days a week, handling passenger jets and private aircraft as well as UPS cargo planes flying to and from the company’s package sorting hub in Rockford every night.
In 2010, Rockford’s air traffic controllers handled 153,000 operations from the tower, according to the FAA.
Cory says Rockford’s tower, built in 1958, is the 35th oldest of the nation’s 260 towers, but it is the sixth oldest operating 24/7.
And at 51 feet, Rockford’s tower is a modern-day midget. Towers commissioned in recent years by the FAA are much taller than Rockford’s.
At Cleveland Hopkins International Airport last month, the FAA broke ground on a 324-foot, $69 million tower. New York’s LaGuardia Airport’s new $100 million tower is 233 feet high. In Traverse City, Mich., a 160-foot tower is being built at Cherry Capital Airport. In Oshkosh, Wis., home of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a 141-foot tower opened in 2008.
Airports with a lot of development nearby need to be higher than surrounding buildings so air traffic controllers can see over them.
“Newer towers are typically built much taller for improved line-of-sight,” said Brian Walker, vice president of Crawford, Murphy & Tilly Inc., the airport’s engineering firm.
Walker said the FAA will take into account the airport’s long-term improvement plans when it picks a new site. One project that will affect location is a third runway, which has been on the airport’s wish list since the 1990s.
The current tower is in the path of that future runway, so it would have to be relocated.
That’s where the computer model helps. From pictures, designers will be able to visualize the locations and heights of current buildings so when they choose a site controllers will have a clear view of the airfield and airspace around it. From plans, they’ll add runways, terminals and other infrastructure that could someday be built.
And if they build a new tower, it is likely to be equipped with the FAA’s latest air traffic control technology — Next Generation Air Transportation System.
NextGen is already in use at dozens of airports, including those in Milwaukee and Chicago. The system is designed to improve safety and reduce delays by giving air traffic controllers precise weather and flight data.
NextGen technology would also add to the new tower’s price. And these days there are fewer ways to move an expensive federal project forward.
“We no longer have earmarks in Congress, so the Rockford airport would have to apply for funding through the Department of Transportation,” Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in an email.
And come the new year, the FAA’s budget again faces congressional scrutiny when lawmakers address how the agency is funded.
That may give officials a better view when Rockford’s move from virtual concept to brick-and-mortar becomes reality — if it ever does.
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