LI battles competition for air traffic control center

The newer control tower at Laguardia Airport belies The newer control tower at Laguardia Airport belies the old buildings, right, that reflect another era in aviation history. (May 15, 2012) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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The competition to keep almost 1,000 high-paying aviation jobs on Long Island is intensifying, with Pennsylvania now vying for a new air traffic control center.

Eleven members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation sent a letter to FAA administrator Michael Huerta asking him to consider their state for the new facility to replace two on Long Island.

But Long Island's congressional delegation vowed to fight to keep the jobs on the Island. "The current facility provides hundreds of jobs to Long Islanders and any new facility should remain here, as they already have the knowledge and expertise to be successful," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

The Federal Aviation Administration's Request for Information inviting landowners to submit proposals seeks "34 to 49 acres of land in New York." The Pennsylvania officials asked the FAA to consider other states, even though the deadline to submit proposals was Jan. 31.

Agency officials would not discuss the proposals received and a spokeswoman said yesterday the FAA would not disclose the number of responses. The agency is to make a final decision by May 13.

Air traffic controllers now use radar-based technology at facilities in Nassau and Suffolk. The new building, to be called the Liberty Integrated Control Facility, moves operations to satellite-based systems known as NextGen.

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Long Island officials have proposed sites at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma and elsewhere. Last summer, Huerta toured a site near MacArthur.

"I know there have been a number of other viable options that were submitted to the FAA," Suffolk County Deputy Executive Jon Schneider said. "It's possible to give the FAA as many options as possible, with the caveat that Long Island MacArthur Airport makes a lot of sense."

The Hub property in Hempstead, which had been discussed as a possible site, wasn't submitted to the FAA, county spokesman Brian Nevin said.

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Riverhead's town board voted unanimously on Monday to pay former congressman George Hochbrueckner -- currently a town lobbyist -- $1,000 to help efforts to bring NextGen to the town-owned Enterprise Park at Calverton, a 3,000-acre site once used by Grumman to manufacture F-14 jet fighters for the Navy.

Pennsylvania's bipartisan group asked Huerta to give the eastern part of that state "equal consideration," saying the decision to consider only land in New York was "arbitrary." The group asked Huerta to delay its selection. The FAA has set aside $95 million for land acquisition, site preparation and building design.

The move would affect more than 950 aviation jobs, including more than 500 air traffic controllers, many of whom are paid more than $100,000 a year.

Long Island officials have touted the experienced controllers working at the two existing air traffic control centers who would be hard to replace. The FAA estimates that 30 percent of the local air traffic controller workforce is eligible to retire, and could do so if the new facility is moved from Long Island. Building a new facility here would save the federal government from having to pay moving expenses.

The new building will save money by combining workers now in two separate buildings into one, officials have said.

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The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing controllers on Long Island, said in July it supported keeping the jobs on Long Island. Union spokesman Doug Church said in an email this week the group's position hasn't changed.

The Pennsylvania group argued that eastern Pennsylvania has a lower cost of living than sites being considered in New York, according to the legislators' letter.

Sites to be considered for the new facility must be within 150 miles of Manhattan. Philadelphia and its suburbs are about 90 miles from New York City, as is Allentown.

The 150-mile requirement would qualify land upstate, including around Albany, an area considered in contention for the facility. Newark, N.J., was a possible candidate last year, but the FAA's Request for Information limits choices to within New York State.

The new facility will combine controllers at the Westbury TRACON building and the New York Center facility in Ronkonkoma. TRACON controllers handle air traffic beginning or ending in New York, and New York Center controllers handle high-altitude air traffic crossing the region.

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With Mitchell Freedman

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