Air Traffic Control:

Surveillance Radar Request for the Cherry Capital Airport

RCED-98-118: Published: May 28, 1998. Publicly Released: May 28, 1998.

Additional Materials:


Gerald Dillingham, Ph.D.
(202) 512-4803


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the benefit-cost studies that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducted for the Cherry Capital Airport in 1994, 1996, and 1997, focusing on: (1) FAA's decisionmaking process for installing surveillance radars at airports; (2) the factors, including costs, benefits, and air traffic projections, that FAA considered when conducting the 1994, 1996, and 1997 studies; (3) the impact, if any, that air traffic projections developed by other sources would have had on the results of the 1997 study; (4) actions FAA has taken to address safety concerns at the airport; and (5) FAA's plans to replace surveillance radars at airports with fewer total air traffic operations than the Cherry Capital Airport.

GAO noted that: (1) FAA uses a multifaceted process to determine which airports should get surveillance radars; (2) this process includes completing a benefit-cost study, assessing an airport's need for a surveillance radar compared with the needs of other airports, and determining the availability of radar equipment or funds to purchase needed radar equipment; (3) in its 1994 benefit-cost study for the Cherry Capital Airport, FAA officials overstated the projected air traffic growth; (4) this overstated growth was the primary reason FAA concluded that the airport met its cost-effectiveness criteria; (5) moreover, in 1994, FAA officials did not follow the agency's decisionmaking process and prematurely concluded that the Cherry Capital Airport qualified for a surveillance radar; (6) when conducting the 1994, 1996, and 1997 benefit-cost studies, FAA considered the potential efficiency and safety benefits; (7) with the higher growth rate used in the 1994 study, the benefits exceeded the costs of installing a surveillance radar, so the Cherry Capital Airport met FAA's cost-effectiveness criteria; but with the lower growth rate used in the 1996 and 1997 studies, it did not qualify; (8) the air traffic projections were the most critical factors influencing the results of FAA's benefit-cost studies; (9) to address the safety concerns, FAA installed an automated display and information system at the Cherry Capital Airport in 1997; (10) while the controllers told GAO that the equipment can help them better manage air traffic and improve safety, they have difficulty using it because information on aircraft identification and altitude is sometimes unreadable on the display monitor; (11) beginning in 1999, FAA plans to replace the existing surveillance radars installed in the 1960s and 1970s at 101 airports as part of its efforts to modernize its air traffic control system; (12) seventy-five of the 101 airports had fewer total air traffic operations in 1996 than the Cherry Capital Airport did; (13) although FAA conducts benefit-cost studies and uses air traffic operations as a basis for determining the cost-effectiveness of installing surveillance radars at airports, agency officials did not conduct similar studies to determine whether it would be cost-effective to replace existing radars at the 101 airports or to prioritize the replacement of the radars; and (14) FAA has no plans to undertake such efforts because agency officials believe that it would be very difficult to discontinue radar operations at an airport because of the public's perception that safety would be reduced.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA determined that there continues to be an operational need for radars at all airports identified in the appendix to the report. Therefore, FAA does not plan to do the cost/benefit studies GAO recommended, does not plan to decommission any of the radars, and plans to proceed with replacing the old radars with the newer radars at all airports.

    Recommendation: Because of budget constraints and the future expenditures associated with installing radars as part of the effort to modernize the nation's air traffic control system, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to conduct benefit-cost studies to validate the cost-effectiveness and revalidate the need for the radars at airports scheduled to receive replacement radars and to use the results of the studies in prioritizing the replacement of the radars at qualifying airports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA did not conduct any benefit/cost studies, so there is nothing to report to the Congress.

    Recommendation: FAA should advise Congress on the results of these studies for its consideration during deliberations on the Department of Transportation's budget request.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »