WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Federal aviation officials have dropped plans to consolidate Palm Beach International Airport's long-range radar system into one in Miami, a decision that will eventually let air traffic controllers move into the new, $19.2 million tower that has been sitting empty at the airport since its completion a year ago.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Thursday that it would keep the radar system, known as Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, at Palm Beach International.
The ruling marks a victory for PBIA's air traffic controllers, whose national union has been trying to persuade the FAA for five years that moving the system to Miami would cause employment and safety problems for Palm Beach.
"It has been caught up in a little bit of a decision process," said Shane Ahern, president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "This has been a good, collaborative effort."
Construction on PBIA's new control tower was completed in Oct. 2010, but the building has stayed vacant while federal officials debated where to put the radar system, which directs plans within about 50 nautical miles of the airport.
Although the disagreement over the radar system has been resolved, it is still unclear exactly when air traffic controllers will be able to move into the new the 231-foot-tower.
The tower was commissioned in 2008 and was built without a room for the TRACON system. The FAA said will ask Congress for the money in the 2013 budget to build the additional space.
The FAA doesn't have a price tag for the added work yet, but air traffic facilities typically cost millions of dollars.
While the dispute wore on, no equipment was installed in the new tower. That process is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete, the FAA said.
Ahern said the installation and construction of the new TRACON facility could be completed in about the same time frame.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, who has opposed the consolidation plan since it was announced in 2006, praised the FAA's decision to reverse course.
"I am truly elated that the FAA has decided to build a TRACON at PBIA and keep those critical safety functions here in West Palm Beach," Hastings said in a prepared statement released by his office. "TRACONs are vitally important to our nation's air transportation network and a dedicated TRACON at PBIA will not only maintain but, in some cases, improve local and regional service as well as enhance system safety by offering additional air traffic control service to South Florida."
Hastings was one of several local lawmakers, who along with air traffic controllers, had argued that the consolidation step would cause havoc in the skies if the Miami system went down. If a natural disaster or terrorist attack damaged the Miami radar, controllers at the Jacksonville airport, more than 350 miles away, would be left responsible for all South Florida airports, they said.
TRACON controllers work on the lower level of PBIA's older, 90-foot-tall tower, where they use radar screens to track aircraft within 50 miles of the airport. The controllers behind the glass windows at the top of the tower guide takeoffs and landings within 5 miles of the runways.
PBIA officials said Thursday they were unaware of the decision to keep the radar system at the airport.
"We haven't received any notification from the FAA," PBIA spokeswoman Casandra Davis said.
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