FAA looks at retiring iconic Tucson airport control tower
Tucson International Airport’s iconic control tower circa 1958. Tucson Airport Authority photo

Tucson International Airport’s iconic 52-year-old control tower — with large letters

T-U-C-S-O-N displayed vertically in neon down two of its four sides — is facing retirement. Airport officials hope to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration in August or September that a new tower will be built.

Although the existing tower might still have the looks in some Tucsonans’ eyes, airport and air traffic control officials say it’s too short by today’s standards and has issues with the sun and security.

Three potential sites for a new tower have been identified; all of which are on airport property but on the south side of the main east-west runway.

Jill Merrick, vice president of planning and development for the Tucson Airport Authority (TAA), said all three sites give air traffic controllers the advantage of looking north and not into the sun. The existing tower located near the Executive Terminal has air traffic controllers looking southward to the main runway.

Additionally, the new tower being considered would be more than twice as tall, at 225 feet, as the existing tower where the tower cab is 92 feet off the ground.

The estimated $28 million to $30 million cost of building a new tower would come from the FAA, though Ian Gregor, regional communications manager for the FAA, said funding has yet to be established. 

The FAA has two other options besides building a new tower. Either doing nothing or renovating the existing tower. The last option won’t be considered, according to Merrick who said the FAA did a cost analysis 2½ years ago and determined that choice wasn’t worth pursuing.

In support of building a new tower Merrick said the existing tower, which was dedicated in October 1958, is one of the very oldest still in use at a commercial airport in the United States. It is the 50th busiest tower in the National Airspace System serving  eight airlines, the Arizona Air National Guard, five airfreight operators and helicopter operations, the majority of which are used for law enforcement and medical activity.

As part of the site selection process for a new tower, Merrick in January went to the FAA Airport Facilities Terminal Integration Laboratory in Atlantic City, N.J., where a 3-D simulator helped participants evaluate locations for a new tower.

“They could model for us—as if we were in the control tower—what it would be like in real-time situations,” she said. “It was quite amazing. We could see the existing buildings and the mountains. They could show us a Southwest 737 coming in, then an American flight, an F-16 or a small private Cessna and we could see just how each would look.”

If the FAA green lights a new tower, Merrick said the hope is that it could be built and ready to use by 2014.

She also said, the FAA uses a standard sort of design for towers using a concrete base topped with a glassed cab for traffic controllers.

There won’t be any neon lights down its side. But that doesn’t mean the existing tower and it’s lettering are going away. Although no decision has been made on what to do about the existing tower, Merrick said sentimentality associated with it would probably mean that the structure stays.

At its April 6 meeting, the TAA board of directors voted to go ahead with the two revised projects despite the State of Arizona’s budget issues. State officials told TAA they intend to stand by funding but that payments are being delayed by 18 months. If that should change, the board agreed it would review the projects and look to find other sources to pick up the state’s share of costs.

• $8.3 million to reconstruct the keel, or middle, section of the airport’s 7,000-foot runway used mostly by smaller aircraft but by commercial airliners when there are crosswinds. This is a change in plans for an item that was originally budgeted for just under $1.4 million. Merrick explained that a recent evaluation had determined the runway needed additional work, part of which was attributed to the increased use of the runway during reconstruction of the airport’s nearly 11,000-foot runway in 2007 and 2008. 

Other airport construction projects

• $2.8 million to reconstruct using concrete and widen seven taxiways. This was originally budgeted at $1.8 million.

• $11 million expansion of the terminal apron allowing for increased parking of commercial airliners overnight and for use when aircraft are diverted to Tucson. Ultimately the area which is being built east of Concourse A will be used for expansion of that concourse when it’s warranted.

• $1.8 million in upgraded security monitoring to be completed this month.

About 90 percent of the projects will be paid for through federal funding  with the state and TAA splitting the remaining funding.

Tower trivia Tucson isn’t known for tall buildings and when the current control tower at Tucson International Airport was opened in October 1958, at just over 119 feet to the top, it was the third-tallest building in town. The airport’s proposed new tower, at 225 feet, would be significantly shorter than what is now Tucson’s tallest building, the 22-story UniSource Energy Tower downtown that is 330 feet tall. 

There’s also a difference in cost. The new tower is projected to cost between $28 million and $30 million. The current tower cost $535,000 in 1958.

Source: Tucson Airport Authority

Contact reporter David Hatfield at dhatfield@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4237.