FAA stalls replacement of control tower at Sacramento airport

The Terminal A parking structure, left, is contrasted against the 150-foot tall control tower built in 1967. A new hotel in the planning stages for Terminal B at Sacramento International Airport may obscure the view of planes for air traffic controllers. Airport officials want to build a new tower but the FAA said no.
The Terminal A parking structure, left, is contrasted against the 150-foot tall control tower built in 1967. A new hotel in the planning stages for Terminal B at Sacramento International Airport may obscure the view of planes for air traffic controllers. Airport officials want to build a new tower but the FAA said no. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

After working with the federal government for nearly a decade to replace the air traffic control tower at Sacramento International Airport, local officials received an abrupt message earlier this year:

Build it yourself.

The new tower had been in the airport’s master plan since 2007. The Federal Aviation Administration had spent $2 million to pay for an environmental assessment and a design, which was completed in June.

Airport officials had expected to break ground on a $60 million air traffic control tower early next year to replace a nearly 50-year-old structure with seismic and security deficiencies, among others.

Now, the project’s supporters are largely stumped as to why the FAA changed its mind and want a clearer explanation. The agency has been buffeted in recent years by federal spending cuts and critics in Congress who think the private sector, not the government, should manage the nation’s air traffic control system.

The FAA declined to comment on the Sacramento tower dispute. Administrator Michael Huerta wrote Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, in March, saying the agency would not participate in the tower’s relocation. He suggested that the airport was free to use the design for the new tower should it “decide to proceed with replacing the facility on its own.”

Matsui said in an interview that she was not satisfied: “I feel there are different answers all the time, and they’re not consistent at all.”

The congresswoman said she thought the FAA had given every indication that it planned to move forward with the tower replacement.

But when Huerta wrote her in March to say the agency would not be supporting the project, she said it felt like a football trick Lucy would play on Charlie Brown.

“I must say, I’m very disappointed,” she said. “We were following all the rules.”

The existing tower dates to the airport’s opening in 1967 and was built from an iconic blueprint by the legendary architect I.M. Pei. But the 15-story concrete tower doesn’t meet a checklist of modern requirements.

Its electrical wiring is outdated. It’s not accessible for employees with disabilities. While current security guidelines recommend a minimum setback of 300 feet, the tower sits next to a road that’s one of the main entrances and exits to the airport. It also does not conform to California earthquake safety standards.

In addition, the line of sight for the air traffic controllers who work in the tower has been partially obscured since 2011, when the airport built a new concourse for Terminal B. It partially blocks the views of two east-west taxiways that connect the terminal with the airport’s two north-south runways.

An FAA evaluation of the tower’s condition more than a decade ago gave it a “less-than-fair” rating.

I feel there are different answers all the time, and they’re not consistent at all.

Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui

The FAA funded the environmental assessment and design work for a 180-foot replacement tower north of the Sacramento airport’s taxiways.

John Wheat, director of the Sacramento County Airport System, said the design was completed in June and that construction was expected to begin early next year.

“We were anticipating that once the design was completed, they would put out bids,” he said.

Wheat had understood that the FAA would use funds left over from projects that came in under budget to pay for the new tower. But when the White House released its 2016 budget request in February, the line item for the Sacramento tower had disappeared.

“We started asking questions and getting as much information as we could,” Wheat said. “It was explained to us that there were different priorities.”

According to Wheat, the FAA said it didn’t anticipate any construction starts for new airport towers in 2016 or 2017. The agency also said several other airports were waiting for funding to build new towers.

Average age of control towers operated by the FAA is 30 years, and some are closer to 60.

The FAA operates 500 air traffic control towers and replaces them when they no longer meet operational requirements. Their average age is 30 years; some are closer to 60.

“There are a lot of old towers in the U.S.,” Wheat said, “and they pick them off as they can.”

Safety problems similar to those at the Sacramento airport have been cited in other federally funded tower replacement projects in California.

Oakland’s $51 million control tower picked up $33 million from President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill in 2009, the largest single award to an FAA project.

Ironically, Huerta cited concerns about the visibility of airport operations when the agency dedicated the 236-foot-tall tower in November 2013.

“This modernized, taller tower gives controllers dramatically better airfield views, which helps enhance safety,” he said.

It isn’t unusual for some areas of airports to be invisible from the control tower, said Thomas Anthony, director of the aviation safety and security program at the University of Southern California. In such limited cases, the airports or airlines, rather than the FAA, control airplane movements.

Anthony said controllers don’t have the ability to taxi aircraft through those areas.

“Ideally, the tower should be able to see as much of the airport as possible,” he said.

Map of Sacramento International Airport showing current and planned towers 

And Sacramento’s tower is still vulnerable to earthquakes. When San Francisco’s new $115 million control tower was completed in May, FAA Western-Pacific Regional Administrator Glen Martin noted that the tower was “constructed according to the strictest, modern seismic standards.”

Not only did the gleaming new tower receive $80 million of its construction cost from the FAA, but the firm that designed it, Fentress Architects, also designed the Terminal B concourse in Sacramento that partially blocks air traffic controllers’ view of the taxiways.

There are a lot of old towers in the U.S., and they pick them off as they can.

John Wheat, director of the Sacramento County Airport System

In her reply to Huerta’s letter, Matsui wrote that she was “troubled” by the FAA’s response. The airport had never been told to expect to pay for a tower replacement, she said, adding that the tower is a federal responsibility and “warrants a renewed commitment from the FAA.”

She wrote that her staff had visited the tower and saw firsthand how controllers had limited views of the airport. Matsui requested a meeting with FAA officials.

When that meeting still hadn’t happened by July, she complained directly to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx when he visited Sacramento.

Hovering over the dispute is legislation to reauthorize the FAA, which is set to expire at the end of this month. The Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has proposed to end the government’s responsibility for managing the air traffic control system.

GOP lawmakers have complained that the current FAA-run system is inefficient and has been slow to replace outdated radar technology.

For now, the existing tower functions as best it can. Wheat said it has received no major modifications or upgrades in almost 50 years of service. He said the tower is also not designed for current equipment, and that the controllers operate in cramped quarters.

“We would like a new tower here,” he said, “and I’m sure (the FAA) would, too.”