Monday, January 16, 2012

Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport to get tall new control tower

Squeezed between business districts and bustling with corporate jets, Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport is about to get safer – and its control tower far more visible.

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to build an ultra-modern 12-story tower by mid 2014, replacing a squat control tower built 41 years ago, when the airport was mostly used by small planes and bordered by cow pastures.

"We're just happy to have a state-of-the-art facility that will enhance airport efficiency and safety," said Clara Bennett, the airport's manager.

Costing more than $9 million in federal grant money, the new tower will be 117 feet tall, more than twice the size of the old five-story tower. It will feature a tubular design and be equipped with sophisticated aircraft-tracking systems.

"It will be a taller facility that gives controllers more room to work, and will allow us to install the latest air traffic technology," said Kathleen Bergen, FAA spokeswoman.

Although the tower is being designed to handle increased air traffic, there's not much growth in sight. Executive Airport, like the rest of aviation, has been hit hard by the recession, officials said.

Since 2008, air traffic has decreased about 25 percent, from 200,000 take offs and landings per year to 150,000, Bennett said. Still, it is one of the region's busiest general aviation airfields, home to more than 700 aircraft, including about 115 corporate jets.

Although Executive Airport's neighbors have long protested expansion plans, fearing more air traffic and noise, Bennett said the tower will play no role in promoting growth.

"Air traffic activity is really driven by the economy and demand, not projects such as this," she said.

Linda Bird, president of Lakes Estates Homeowners Association, said neighbors don't oppose the new tower because it should enhance safety. However, she said the federal money would have been better spent on hiring more inspectors to ensure planes are well maintained, in light of several crashes around the airport in the past decade.

"We do not have an adequate number of inspectors on ground," she said. "That's where the money needs to be spent."

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new tower is to be held at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. In conjunction with the tower, a 6,900-square-foot base building is to be constructed on the south side of the airport. The old tower is slated to be torn down when the new one goes into operation.

Also to be demolished will be an old airport fire house near the tower site. The station was shut down four years ago when a new one opened on the north side of the airfield.

Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport was built in 1941 as an auxiliary training airfield to the Fort Lauderdale Naval Air Station, now Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. When the current control tower opened in September 1970, Richard Nixon was president.

"The existing tower is in dire need of replacement," Bennett said. "It' doesn't meet current FAA standards."

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