Measuring Airport Similarity to Create a Towering Decision Aid; Cultural Comparison: U.S. Air Traffic Control Remains Unchanged While Other Countries Privatize Systems

Anderson, Austin, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Fleming, Cody, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia

While the technical and STS portions of this thesis are clearly related, a story about Marana Regional Airport will portray just how intertwined they are. This small to medium sized airport is located in Arizona and has a total air traffic volume of about 90,000 flights per year. For many years, this airport has wanted an air traffic control tower to help with the safety and logistics of its flights. In 2011, the Marana airport went through the necessary steps for building a tower, but eventually pulled out because of the high costs. More recently due to increasing traffic volume, the need for the tower has increased. In 2015, they estimated the tower would cost around $1.5 million for construction and $400,000 to $500,000 a year for operation. These are significant costs for the relatively small town. Unfortunately, Marana is far from the only town that seeks an air traffic control tower but has not invested in one because of the financial burden. This issue is why our capstone team has created a model to help these smaller airports weigh the benefits and costs of investing in an air traffic control tower. A large reason these airports decide not to invest in a tower is because they feel they do not receive adequate funding from the FAA to build one. This is one of many funding issues within the FAA, which is why my STS research focuses on issues within the air traffic control system in the U.S. and a comparison with other countries’ systems.
For the technical portion of my thesis, our team’s task was to design a tool to help airports assist in their decision of whether or not to build an air traffic control tower. To achieve this, we first familiarized ourselves with air traffic control and the towers via online research and talks with experts. From there we gathered data from several sources to create safety, efficiency, and economy metrics for airports. Finally, we used these metrics to cluster the airports for our model. The clustering allowed us to see which airports were most similar to each other based on our metrics. The user interface for the model was created on Tableau and allows users to look up specific airports to see their data or filter the metrics to see which airports are similar to theirs in terms of total air traffic, economic output, number of accidents, among many others. When decision makers are using this interface, they are easily able to compare themselves to airports with similar metrics and see the benefits of an air traffic control tower for those airports.
Because funding and innovation have continued to be such big issues for the FAA, I looked into how the structure of air traffic control in the United States has led to these shortcomings in my STS research. The U.S. air traffic control system is run by the FAA, a government agency. A portion of my paper explains in detail what this government run structure looks like and later compares this to public-private air traffic control systems used in many other countries. A good majority of the countries that have privatized their air traffic system have seen drastic improvements in both funding and innovation. Finally, I write about how change has not occurred in the U.S. due to the culture and what to do moving forward.
Working on these two projects together was intriguing because they are inherently very interconnected. The STS research project provided a good overarching and political view of the issues. Because the air traffic control system is completely government run, all proposals for change were run through the president and congress. The research also helped me understand the just how numerous and diverse the stakeholders of air traffic control are. The different stakeholders all have varying priorities and desires, making changes to the system very challenging. The technical project made the technicalities of the system and issues with smaller airports much clearer to me. Specific aspects from the phases of the flights to the technical equipment used in air traffic control was important context for our model. Know the challenges and needs of the small airports without towers was also essential to provide relevant information to them in our model. Safety is obviously at the forefront with the implications of a system like air traffic control, which was a very important ethical consideration while working on this project.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
air traffic control, faa, remote tower, federal aviation administration, air traffic control tower

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: Cody Fleming
STS Advisor: Kathryn Neeley
Technical Team Members: Toby Hansford, Mason Jordan, Sragdhara Khakurel, Chris Marshall, Michael Quinn, Katherine Taylor, Amy Xie

Issued Date: