Put NextGen air traffic control at MacArthur

A photo at the New York TRACON (stands A photo at the New York TRACON (stands for "Terminal Radar Approach Control") at 1515 Stewart Avenue, Westbury. (April 14, 2005) Photo Credit: Newsday/Ken Spencer

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A long-awaited advance in technology promises to reduce costly air travel delays across the nation. But it shouldn't mean moving hundreds of high-paying air traffic control jobs off Long Island. That could be the unhappy result when federal aviation officials decide early next year where in the New York City region the nation's first next-generation, satellite-based air traffic control facility will be.

There's a strong case for locating it on Long Island, and our congressional delegation and U.S. senators are aggressively pressing federal officials to do so. But a number of potential sites on Long Island are being bandied about -- including a parcel in Selden owned by Suffolk Community College and even the Hub in central Nassau County. That lack of focus could weaken the area's pitch.

Long Island officials should get behind one site. MacArthur Airport in Islip appears to fit the bill nicely.

The NextGen control system is the Federal Aviation Administration's answer to frequent flight delays at New York City-area airports, a bottleneck responsible for many of the air travel delays nationwide. The global positioning satellite-based system will replace antiquated radar-based air traffic control, providing more precise information to controllers and pilots. That will enable planes to fly closer to one another and take off and land with less separation in time and space. Think of it as creating more traffic lanes in the sky.

The new facility will consolidate air traffic operations now at the 50-year-old New York Center in Ronkonkoma and at TRACOM, the Terminal Radar Approach Control in Westbury that was designed for far less traffic than it now handles.

The NextGen facility will be built somewhere within a 150-mile radius of New York City. Scheduled for completion in 2019, it should meet the region's air control needs for the next 30 years. It will require a 60-acre site to accommodate the building and a needed security corridor, and the location must have adequate access to power and fiber optic lines.

While the systems in Westbury and Ronkonkoma are past their planned useful life, the 850 people who work there are not. Retaining those experienced controllers and support staffers should be a key consideration when deciding where to put the new facility, FAA officials said. That gives Long Island an important leg up on sites being considered in Poughkeepsie and Albany or near Newark's Liberty Airport or Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh. Building here will cause the least possible attrition of skilled controllers and the least possible disruption in the lives of those who remain on the job. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association recently put its weight behind Long Island as a location.

Retaining those mostly six-figure jobs and adding more than 1,000 construction jobs would be a boost for the Island's economy. And putting the facility near MacArthur Airport would augment an ambitious plan for a mixed-use development around the nearby Ronkonkoma train station being billed as a gateway to the East End.

Implementing NextGen is challenging enough without creating problems for the professionals needed to make it work. They're on Long Island. The new integrated control facility should be, too.

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