FAA plans to evaluate about 25 terminal radar approach control (Tracon) facilities by Oct. 1, kick-starting an effort to create a comprehensive, detailed air traffic facility consolidation and realignment plan as part of NextGen’s development, agency Administrator Michael Huerta says.

The evaluations, part of a broader congressional mandate, will for the first time include specific metrics created to help FAA determine how, or whether, each facility fits into the agency’s NextGen support plan.

“The evaluation will include a review of the infrastructure of the facility, the technology the facility can support, including its readiness for NextGen, and how people working at the facility will be impacted by any decision made,” Huerta told the House aviation subcommittee during a Feb. 5 hearing.

A set of five criteria will be applied “and given equal weight,” Huerta explains. The criteria will cover attributes like the facility’s condition, the airports it serves, and whether its airspace borders another Tracon’s airspace.

Once facilities are evaluated, the agency will develop prioritized, facility-specific recommendations, which would be subject to detailed cost-benefit analysis and industry feedback. Sets of plausible recommendations will be provided to Congress, fulfilling a requirement Congress included in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012’s Section 804. Huerta says FAA’s goal is an initial report back to Congress “early next year.”

Consolidation of FAA’s primary ATC facilities, including 167 Tracons and 20 en route centers, and making tactically sound investments in both existing and new facilities are considered key elements of supporting NextGen cost-effectively. A 2012 Transportation Department Inspector General (DOT IG) report noted the average age of a Tracon was nearly 30 years, while the average en route center was pushing 50. The more quickly FAA determines which ones merit continued investment and which ones can be phased out, the more funds the agency will have for related, and equally important, efforts.

“If aging systems and associated facilities are not retired, FAA will miss potential opportunities to reduce its overall maintenance costs at a time when resources needed to maintain both systems and facilities may become scarcer,” notes Government Accountability Office Physical Infrastructure Issues Director Gerald Dillingham.

FAA understands that freeing up funds to help develop new facilities is a must.

“Any time you are realigning facilities, by definition, there is a bill that we’re going to have to pay for a new facility,” Huerta notes. “Effectively, we have to invest money in order to ensure savings down the road.”

Future Framework

While FAA has developed a basic framework for its future ATC facility infrastructure – one that includes building a prototype Integrated Control Facility in the New York region – the plans lack fundamental details, such as what happens to existing facilities.

Section 804 called on FAA to develop a comprehensive report and deliver it within months – a task that FAA found is easier said than done.

“While FAA appreciates the importance of this provision, executing the intent of the provision has proven to be challenging,” Huerta tells lawmakers. A single set of recommendations covering all FAA facilities proved to be too much, too soon. Instead, the agency – working closely with controllers and other affected members of the workforce – will take a phased approach, evaluating sets of facilities using a “repeatable process” until the entire network is covered, Huerta explains. “There is always great sensitivity surrounding decisions affecting where people will work,” Huerta continues. “This process took a long time to develop, but I think it was time well spent."

The ATC consolidation report is one of more than 200 deliverables that the 2012 act assigned to FAA. NextGen is prominent in 24 of them, and FAA was on track have half of those completed by Jan. 31.

Among notable tasks still outstanding: developing a plan to accelerate NextGen technology certification, and evaluating surface systems technology use at the 30 designated “core airports.”