Eight months behind schedule, the new air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport is finally cleared to open Aug. 28.
The $99 million facility was delayed by two government shutdowns, followed by the discovery of a massive construction error.
With the remediation complete, air traffic controllers are undergoing intense training before they settle into the 352-foot tower that provides wide views of jetliners passing through the nation’s ninth-busiest airport.
“It’s critical for us to continually reinvest in airports and air traffic control facilities to maintain the health of our aviation system,” Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said. “Safety is the FAA’s primary mission and top priority, and the new tower and approach control at McCarran are important parts of our never-ending work to enhance the safety and efficiency of our national airspace system.”
The tower is coming online as McCarran reports a surge in passenger traffic not seen since the Great Recession. The airport served 530,330 flights last year, nearly quadruple the 140,000 flights recorded when the current tower opened in 1983, McCarran and FAA officials said.
Also, ongoing growth around McCarran has created blind spots for controllers working in the current 185-foot tower.
Standing twice as tall, the new tower delivers unobstructed views of the airfield. The 40 controllers working in the new tower’s top floor, known as the cab, will have 850 square feet of office space, far more than the current 525 square feet.
The new facility includes a two-level parking garage, a guard station and a 52,800-square-foot, four-story office building at the tower’s base for Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, where another 49 controllers will manage airborne planes within a 40-mile radius of McCarran’s airspace.
“The height of the building and the improved line of sight will allow controllers to increase the already extremely high level of safety,” said Jamaal Haltom, who has worked 17 years as a controller and worked atop the McCarran tower since 2010.
“The vantage point that the height provides will allow controllers to spot potential conflicts in an even more timely manner than before,” Haltom said. “The updated equipment and technology will allow controllers to spend more time making safety observations out of the windows.”
The current tower, deemed obsolete after guiding more than 1 billion travelers to safe landings, eventually will be demolished like many older Las Vegas hotels. A pair of adjoining buildings probably will be put to another use, but airport officials said it is too soon to provide details.
“As the community has grown, so has its airport, and it’s appropriate that McCarran’s supporting facilities continue to evolve as well,” Clark County Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said. “We’re confident the FAA’s new, state-of-the-art tower will enjoy a long and productive run similar to that of its predecessor.”
Construction started in May 2011 but came to a standstill just two months later when Congress reached an impasse on whether to reauthorize the FAA. The stalemate led to a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA and placed about 4,000 employees on furlough, including engineers who oversaw construction of the tower.
When the engineers returned to work, the contractor needed “a bit of time to ramp the operations back up,” Gregor said.
The basic structure of McCarran’s tower rose high above the airfield as workers installed electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems. But in October 2013 construction came to a second standstill, as FAA engineers again were pulled off the work site when Congress failed to adopt a new budget, leading to a 16-day government shutdown that affected more than 800,000 federal workers.
Shortly after construction resumed, a serious error was spotted in early 2014. A chemical coating was supposed to be placed within walls, ducts and other dry areas of the structure to curb stachybotrys chartarum, a black mold that causes flu-like symptoms and prompted the closure of several buildings when it was detected in the Las Vegas Valley in the late 1990s.
At the time, workers on the jobsite told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the chemical was placed in flexible ducts that were lubricated for installation, but the coating never adhered to the oily surfaces. As a result, flakes of the substance blew into rooms when crews tested the air conditioning and heating system.
The contractor, Walsh Construction of Chicago, removed and replaced the duct system over several months, the FAA said. It was unclear how much it cost to complete the work.
Executives at Walsh Construction did not return phone calls seeking comment.
When the ducting repairs were completed last summer, the FAA began installing electronics and traffic control equipment.
During the first few months of operation, controllers will use the tried-but-true system of passing along paper strips to each other as a way to track planes at McCarran. By the start of 2017, they will switch to an automated electronic flight system that helps track planes leaving Las Vegas airspace and relays the information to ground control, Gregor said.
The technology, part of the FAA’s NextGen program to transition to satellite-based communications systems by 2025, is in place at airports in Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Phoenix.
“For years, NextGen has been looked at as a catchphrase, but this summer it becomes a reality for McCarran and its travelers,” said Anthony Borgert, who has worked for the past 10 years at the TRACON facility in Las Vegas.
Before that happens, controllers are undergoing tests, starting with a high-tech simulator that re-creates the view from McCarran’s new tower, allowing them to give commands to faux jetliners landing, taking off and maneuvering around the airfield.
Once that’s mastered, controllers will spend time in the new tower, where they will listen to colleagues giving air traffic orders from the old tower. The lesson is aimed at giving controllers some perspective on how those commands will look from the new structure.
Controllers officially will move to the new tower Aug. 28, but a few workers will remain in the old tower for a couple of days to keep an eye on airfield traffic to ensure a smooth transition.
“Everyone will be familiar with the view, the tower, the equipment and what they’re supposed to do,” Gregor said.
Contact Art Marroquin at email@example.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @AMarroquin_LV on Twitter.