Not long ago, the elevator and air conditioning went out in Jen McCoy’s office building. That’s a headache, but in a nearly 50-year-old facility, these things happen.
What’s notable is where McCoy works: The air traffic control tower at Tampa International Airport.
“Twenty flights of stairs in this kind of heat is no fun,” said McCoy, the president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “The airport itself is very nice. They put a lot of money into it. It’s separate from our facility. The tower is very old. It is by far the worst facility I’ve been in.”
McCoy isn’t the only one who feels that way.
Tampa International Airport is in the middle of a $2 billion capital improvement campaign that will include a new office tower, widened roads, new express curbside lanes and a 16-gate airside hub. It routinely ranks near the top of traveler satisfaction surveys. After a hard-hit 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, airport officials have said they expect 2021 to be a record year for passenger traffic.
But the control tower, long a topic of consternation among air traffic controllers, is a different story. The Federal Aviation Administration-controlled facility is “deteriorating,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and it’s past time for it to be replaced.
“It’s in awful shape,” Castor said. “I remember, as a little girl, the big new Tampa airport, and it has really stood the test of time — except for this tower, because they haven’t invested in it. ... I think it’s bordering on occupational hazards.”
Castor has called for a new Tampa tower before. This time, though, it might actually happen. The bipartisan, trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August has earmarked $5 billion to repair and replace air traffic control facilities. To help stake Tampa’s claim, Castor sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration head Steve Dickson outlining complaints about the tower, including cracked windows, old and broken water pipes near electrical wiring, and plumbing and sewage issues resulting in “odors so pungent they have resulted in controllers taking sick leave.”
McCoy said that while air traffic controllers are used to high-stress environments, such problems are “definitely a distraction.”
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the AC going out is a direct safety hazard,” she said. “We’re going to make sure that the flying public is safe. But what it does is, it just adds this distraction. We don’t have room for error in our job. The fewer distractions, the better.”
In a statement, Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Rick Breitenfeldt said the agency “looks forward to the passage of this once-in-a-generation funding,” which will enable it to fix air tower issues.
“The agency is working to correct infrastructure issues at the Tampa International Airport air traffic control tower involving the heating and air conditioning, ventilation, roofing and sewage systems,” Breitenfeldt wrote. “During this process, the FAA continues to provide safe and efficient air traffic services at the airport.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has long considered replacing Tampa’s tower, which also houses radar and approach control services for airports from Sarasota to St. Petersburg to Brooksville to Lakeland, as well as MacDill Air Force Base. In 2010, an engineering firm hired by the agency found that the tower was “degraded” and “well past its useful life.” Local controllers supported a 2017 bill that would have privatized federal air traffic control, arguing that such a move could snip through red tape stalling tower repairs.
Tampa International is one of what the Federal Aviation Administration calls its “Core 30″ airports, generally defined as America’s busiest. The Tampa tower is the second-oldest on the list, behind a 71-year-old facility in Baltimore. Several other Florida airport towers have been replaced this century, including all three other Core 30 hubs: Orlando International Airport and Miami International Airport in 2002 and Palm Beach International Airport in 2010. An $80 million tower is nearing completion at Fort Myers’ Southwest Florida International Airport.
While most new towers are federally funded, Breitenfeldt said local airports, governments and aviation agencies, such as the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, can contribute to some or all of a project. Airport spokesperson Veronica Cintron said that typically happens only when an airport needs to relocate a tower for its own purposes, which is not the current case with Tampa International.
In some cases, local aviation authorities have contributed to a new tower, then sought reimbursement from the Federal Aviation Administration. Castor said Tampa airport officials were leery of getting stuck with a bill in the tens of millions.
“When the Tampa airport invested in upgrading its baggage screening after 9/11, we had to fight for years and years and years to get reimbursement,” she said. “So I think they’re a little skittish on taking that path.”
Airport spokesperson Danny Valentine said the airport supported Castor’s campaign for infrastructure funding.
“We welcome her continued advocacy for the safety and improvement of airport facilities,” he said. “The health and safety of all employees, passengers and visitors is and will always be our top priority.”
If Tampa does get a new tower, the Federal Aviation Administration will conduct a siting study to determine where to place it, Breitenfeldt said. Cintron said the airport has a site set aside, and that the airport would work with the Federal Aviation Administration on construction. Otherwise, she said the airport does not inspect or maintain the current federally operated tower in any way.
McCoy said the airport’s expansive growth has actually created a few small blind spots for controllers scanning runways from atop the tower. It’s nothing critical, she said, but “every little tiny thing like that that happens in our job is just an increased chance of a mistake, and having a tower with much better visibility is going to be a huge improvement.”
So will working elevators, toilets and air conditioning, she said.
“You watch the building degrade around you, and you wonder, how long can we continue to work in this building?” she said. “We’re probably past our last leg. These buildings, they’re not designed to last forever, and this one is just beyond its useful lifespan.”