Thursday, September 22, 2005

The control room in the new air traffic control tower at Washington Dulles International Airport is more than a room with a view.

When it opens next year, it will be among the highest in the nation.

The behemoth stretches 325 feet into the Northern Virginia sky, dwarfing the 178-foot-tall tower it will replace.

The $63 million tower is part of a $3.4 billion renovation of Dulles Airport.

“There isn’t much at this airport that isn’t under construction right now,” said James E. Bennett, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The new tower sits one mile south of the original, far from the main terminal, so controllers will have a better view of the airport’s three runways.

A fourth runway at Dulles will measure 9,500 feet in length and is scheduled to open in 2008. Airport officials are planning a fifth runway, but it won’t be built for years.

The new tower is a concrete and steel building that the airport authority will hand over to the Federal Aviation Administration next month. The FAA, which will lease the tower, will then install new radar and communications equipment before opening it next year.

“Something this tall is not easy to build, but it went very well,” said Richard Cullerton, assistant vice president of engineering for the airport authority.

The controllers will guide planes from a room in the tower’s 25th floor. It is nearly empty now, but controllers are eager to pack up and move in.

The old tower opened in November 1962 and is insufficient in light of the massive growth in air travel at Dulles, said Keiron Heflin, an official with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union representing controllers.

“We’ve outgrown the old one. When it’s busy, there’s no room,” said Mr. Heflin, who represents the 42 union controllers at the Dulles tower.

At 325 feet, the new tower will give controllers a better view, said Sherelle Carper, the FAA’s air traffic manager for the Dulles control tower.

“The visibility is impressive. We’ll have a better view of all the runways,” she said.

A 346-foot-tall tower at Florida’s Orlando International Airport is the highest in the nation. A handful of towers — in Newark, Miami and Denver — stretch 333 feet.

A tower under construction at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will dwarf them all. Atlanta’s new tower will measure 398 feet high when it opens next year.

As part of the expansion project at Dulles, workers also have built two garages that provide 8,500 parking spaces and an $81 million passageway from the main terminal to a satellite concourse that Independence Air uses.

Work has started on a $1.2 billion underground train that will encircle the airport.

These projects are in response to the ever-growing crowds at the airport.

An estimated 27 million passengers will pass through Dulles this year, and the number could increase to 40 million by 2015, Mr. Bennett said.

Airport officials haven’t decided what to do with the 43-year-old tower, which was designed by world-famous architect Eero Saarinen and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Saarinen also designed the main terminal.

The tower could serve as a training facility, Mr. Bennett said. Suggestions for its use have run the gamut, including turning the tower into a restaurant.

The original control tower is “a signature piece of this airport,” Mr. Bennett said. “It’s not going anywhere. But we’re not sure what its function will be.”

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