Across the U.S., in all but four states, there are no fewer than 250 airport towers operated by non-FAA controllers employed by three private FAA contractors. The towers provide ATC services to a wide range of users, including general aviation, passenger and cargo airlines and the military. Yet while almost all pilots will have used their services, many, and perhaps most, pilots are likely unaware that the person at the other end of the radio is not an FAA employee. (Contract towers are listed in Appendix B at http://www.oig.dot.gov/library-item/5854)
Is this a good thing? In his current report to the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the DOT’s Inspector General (IG) states that “Overall, we found little difference in the safety or quality of services provided by similar FAA and contract towers.” In fact, the IG notes, “we have found that contract towers had a lower number and rate of reported safety incidents than similar FAA towers and that agency safety evaluations found fewer deficiencies with contract towers.”
Contract towers were introduced in 1982 following the closure of five low-activity towers as a result of the illegal strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (Patco), when then President Reagan fired all controllers and decertified Patco. Since then, the FAA has viewed contract towers as a lower-cost way to provide service at many general aviation airports and a small number of Air National Guard airfields. The ranks of contract controllers are filled primarily by former FAA or military controllers, and all of them hold FAA control-tower operator certificates.
Currently, controllers at 63 of the 250 contract towers are members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), while the remainder do not appear to be represented by any labor organization. All contract-tower controllers earn less than FAA controllers, possibly reflecting the levels and types of traffic using smaller airports.
Nevertheless, not mentioned by the IG, the growing use of those airports by higher-performance corporate and commuter aircraft may start to narrow the difference between smaller and mainline operations. The IG did compare the average cost and staffing differences between 30 contract towers and 30 comparable FAA towers. The analysis used several common factors to derive average air traffic density values, and found the two virtually equal. The FAA tower had a value of 15.55 while the contract tower’s value was 15.34. The data also showed that the average number of air traffic personnel supporting FAA towers was 16, while the contract tower averaged six. Even more startling was the cost difference: FAA tower $2,025,104, contract tower $536,911.
In light of the expected future pressures on the FAA’s operating budget, two small items in the IG’s report give food for thought. The first notes that, due to previous experience, contract controller certification training “can take as little as 30 days.” The second notes that the FAA generally hires controllers “with little or no air traffic experience,” and training and certifying them is a process that can take “from one to five years.”