LI aviation jobs at stake under new plan

An FAA air traffic manager in Westbury.

An FAA air traffic manager in Westbury. (Credit: Newsday/Kathy Kmonicek, 2002)

Long Island could lose 952 aviation jobs, most of them paying an average annual salary of more than $100,000, if federal officials move regional air traffic control operations elsewhere in New York or to New Jersey.

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to build a $95 million air traffic control facility within 150 miles of New York City. It will house hundreds of air traffic controllers as part of NextGen, the agency's nationwide program to use satellite navigation for commercial flights instead of the ground-based radar system used since the 1950s.

The Integrated Control Facility would replace existing air traffic control operations in Westbury and Ronkonkoma. Locations under consideration include Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, according to congressional testimony. Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, Orange County, and sites in Poughkeepsie and Albany, also are under consideration, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) said.

 

'Good-paying jobs'

The Ronkonkoma facility employs 343 air traffic controllers; Westbury, 189, FAA spokeswoman Brie Sachse said. The average annual controller salary in Ronkonkoma is $136,200; at Westbury, $138,742, according to federal reports. The two facilities also employ hundreds of managers, technicians, computer specialists, and administrative and support staff.

"These are good-paying jobs that are vital to our local economy," Suffolk Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said. "That's probably a thousand homes that are going to be on the market" if the work moves elsewhere.

Nassau County officials did not respond to requests for comment about the possible loss of jobs.

Both of the state's senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and the Long Island congressional delegation this month sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to push for keeping air traffic control operations on the Island.

In addition to aviation jobs, retaining air traffic control operations on Long Island "will provide a needed boost to the region's economy and the construction industry by providing over 1,000 new jobs," the letter states.

And, McCarthy said, the FAA would save money by not moving the operations elsewhere.

"There are 450 to 600 families already on Long Island" with members who work in the air traffic control industry, she said. "I think it's cheaper to keep everyone here because of the relocation costs."

 

Local sites touted

The delegation is suggesting two local sites for the FAA to consider -- Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, and the Hub, a tract of undeveloped land in central Nassau County. Suffolk officials also have suggested a county-owned parcel in Selden, next to Suffolk County Community College, Schneider said.

"We're determined not to lose this project for lack of trying, or for lack of information," Schneider said. "If they [congressional representatives] need anything from us to help build the case, we're happy to do it."

The FAA is expected to select a location by the end of the year, according to McCarthy and Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton). The agency's 2013 budget includes money to build the facility. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, is to decide in May when construction would start.

"The FAA is continuing its effort to plan for development of a NextGen facility in New York," Sachse said last week. "A final location has not been determined at this time."

But Newark's Liberty Airport has been the focus of FAA planners, according to congressional testimony.

On May 31, Lou E. Dixon, principal auditor for the DOT's inspector general, told the House of Representatives subcommittee on aviation that the FAA is planning for the new building to be called the Liberty Integrated Control Facility.

And a memorandum prepared by the subcommittee staff reported that the FAA had started "detailed planning" for a new building at Liberty International Airport.

Representatives of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment.

 

Official: Opposition likely

Dixon said in her congressional testimony that FAA planners should anticipate opposition from air traffic controllers working on Long Island. Controller union representatives "indicated that they would oppose plans to build an integrated facility outside of Long Island," Dixon said.

FAA managers at the current air traffic control operations -- TRACON in Westbury and the New York Center in Ronkonkoma -- said 30 percent of the controller workforce is eligible to retire, and that many would do so if forced to move to a new facility outside of Long Island, Dixon testified.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has not "signed off on any plan" for the new facility, union president Paul Rinaldi told the subcommittee last month. Local union officials didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

McCarthy said she is "working with local officials to see what we can do as far as land" required for the Integrated Control Facility. The FAA needs between 50 and 60 acres.

"This is the beginning of the process," McCarthy said. "That's why we on Long Island have to jump on it. For the FAA, it costs less to build a new facility . . . than to repair the existing buildings."

Consolidating controllers in one location with new satellite-based navigation technology will make it easier to coordinate air traffic around the Northeast -- some of the busiest and most congested air space in the country, FAA officials have said.

The Northeast segment will combine existing air traffic control operations stretching from Chicago to New England, New York and Philadelphia. The Northeast center would be one of four to be created across the country.

With Nathaniel Herz

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