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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Technology upgrades coming for big air-traffic

The technology in air-traffic control might be getting younger but the workforce isn’t, with many people in the industry, which includes two large facilities in Greater Nashua, nearing retirement age.

That was one concern that Sen. Kelly Ayotte heard Wednesday during a tour of local aviation facilities, including the highly visible but security-conscious FAA Center alongside the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Nashua, and the more hidden but equally secure Boston TRACON facility in southern Merrimack. ...

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The technology in air-traffic control might be getting younger but the workforce isn’t, with many people in the industry, which includes two large facilities in Greater Nashua, nearing retirement age.

That was one concern that Sen. Kelly Ayotte heard Wednesday during a tour of local aviation facilities, including the highly visible but security-conscious FAA Center alongside the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Nashua, and the more hidden but equally secure Boston TRACON facility in southern Merrimack.

“A third of our workforce of air traffic controllers are coming to retirement age – getting the new workforce in place is an important issue,” said Ayotte, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s subcommittee about aviation operations and security.

Ayotte noted that both facilities train controllers with either past experience or bachelor’s degrees. She pointed to Daniel Webster College’s air traffic management program, which has survived even as the school ended its flight program, as one way to help fill the need.

The state’s junior senator toured several aviation-related facilities in southern New Hampshire on Wednesday, including Nashua Municipal Airport. Security prevented The Telegraph from accompanying Ayotte to either air-traffic facility.

The TRACON center, which stands for Terminal Radar Approach Control, oversees take-offs and landings from airports in Boston, Manchester, Nashua and other area locations, plus flight patterns up to a few thousand feet above the ground in those areas, while the FAA Center in Nashua, officially called Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, handles higher-altitude and through flights.

Each is among roughly two dozen similar facilities in the country and handles thousands of flights daily with large staffs: 281 controllers and another 75 support and technical staff in Nashua, 118 controllers and another 50 to 70 support and technical staff in Merrimack.

“They are central to
aviation safety in the region,” Ayotte said.

In terms of technology, Ayotte pointed to NextGen, an ongoing Federal Aviation Administration program that is redesigning much of the nation’s airspace control system with an eye toward reducing airport gridlock and allowing more flexible flight paths, which can reduce fuel use and time in the air. The program, which will cost billions of dollars, will be designed and rolled out in various stages for at least another decade.

Ayotte said that some of her hosts brought up a word that rattled air-traffic controllers last year: Sequestration.

These forced cuts in federal spending produced furloughs, with accompanying flight delays, in April 2013, and unless Congress changes things this could happen again in 2016.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).