The Federal Aviation Administration has begun preliminary planning for a new air traffic control tower at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Replacing the existing three-decade-old tower, a new one would provide a more panoramic platform for viewing airport activity and ensure room for a new generation of electronic monitoring equipment. The cost would be at least $26 million.
"The agency is determining when funding may be available and working with the airport to identify a site for the new facility," said an FAA spokeswoman.
Before deciding to replace the existing tower, which rises above Concourse C, the FAA also considered a renovation. It assessed the structure's condition, age, location on the airfield, height and size. It also evaluated projected air traffic volume and staffing levels and anticipated technology and equipment.
Now the agency is conducting "a complete technical analysis of potential tower sites" that includes best sight lines, potential environmental impact and FAA office space needs, said BWI Executive Director Paul Wiedefeld. The process is expected to take at least another six months.
The project would then move to the design and budgeting phase for a tower standing about 228 feet tall, 100 feet higher than the current one.
"We want to work with them to make this happen when they want to make it happen," Wiedefeld said.
But it also has to fit into the airport's own plans beyond opening its $100 million terminal expansion this summer and its long-term hopes to upgrade Concourse D and attract more international traffic to Concourse E.
"We have a role in this," Wiedefeld said. "They understand what our master plan is. There's going to be a little bit of give and take."
The base of the existing tower was built in the 1950s, when the facility was known as Friendship Airport. At nine stories, it was hailed as the tallest tower in the nation. The structure was raised and topped off with the existing control room, or cab, in 1983.
Three decades ago, the airport handled 4.7 million passengers. Last year, it handled 22.7 million.
"Needless to say, the tower's a tad old," said John Dunkerly, who represents local workers in the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "The standards for height have changed and the amount of equipment in the cab has grown. We're working on old consoles and you can only cut and paste so many times to make room. You keep stacking up monitors and pretty soon you look like a Best Buy."
Suburban Washington's two airports have newer towers. The 200-foot tower at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., was built in 1997. Dulles International Airport in Sterling, Va., got a new 325-foot tower in 2007.
"We're due," Dunkerly said. "This airport is an economic engine and important to the state's growth. A new tower really will let us move forward as the airport grows the way it wants to grow."
Representatives of the Maryland Aviation Administration and air traffic controllers assigned to the tower made two visits to an FAA design center in Atlantic City to test 18 potential sites on a computer simulator that provides a 360-degree, tower-eye view. The preferred site so far appears to be adjacent to the international concourse at the northeast corner of the terminal.
"They look at different factors. Can you see all taxiways and aircraft tails from every tower position? What do the shadows look like at different times of the year? That ended up being the best site, but they still have to run it through all their assessments," Wiedefeld said.
The most ideal site for a new BWI tower would be adjacent to the footprint of the old one atop Concourse C. But construction would block the view of controllers and the finished product might not have good sightlines if the international concourse is expanded, said Dunkerly.
The old tower would either be razed or turned into office space.
The project's price tag will hinge on a number of factors, including its outward appearance and what the FAA budgets. For example, the agency is paying $69 million of the $102 million price tag for San Francisco International's new tower, with local government covering the rest. That 221-foot tower had to meet stringent earthquake standards. The new 137-foot tower at Hawaii's Kona International Airport cost $35 million.
"It's a question of function over form," Dunkerly said. "Gone are the days when you build it as high and fancy as you can."
Wiedefeld said that "a design that fits into the airport is one of my highest priorities. We're not going to let them stick in just anything."