Budget Cuts Could Spell End of FAA Contract Towers

 - February 1, 2012, 1:45 AM

A sizable portion of the FAA’s successful contract-tower program could face $128 million in cuts by January 2013, a casualty of the Congressional Super Committee’s failure to reach any practical bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction, according to Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the American Association of Airport Executives’ Contract Tower Association.

The cuts are part of a swath of automatic cost-saving measures imposed by the Office of Management and Budget. While the proposed savings pale in comparison to the $1.5 trillion goal initially outlined by the Super Committee, the results could hit the aviation industry hard, Dickerson explained. Should the funding cuts take effect, the move would shut down 120 contract towers around the U.S.

The locations of towers threatened with closure have not been made public, but Dickerson says sources have indicated that airports serving primarily business and general aviation are high on the list to be shuttered. “At many GA airports, there is often a complex mix of activity: flight schools, business aviation, military and even crossing-runway [geometry] where a tower provides a key safety element,” Dickerson said. “We think these [kinds of cuts] are short-sighted.”

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) agrees. In a letter to OMB director Jacob Lew, Mica wrote, “While I appreciate…spending cuts are required, I believe this necessarily means that cuts should be focused on inefficient and ineffective programs. The FAA Contract Tower program does not fall into this category.”

According to numbers from the most recent (2003) DOT Inspector General’s report that reviewed safety, cost and operational metrics at all U.S. contract towers, non-federally operated facilities are just as safe as FAA-operated towers (allowing for measurement data comparisons). Contract towers can also operate–on average–for about one-sixth of the total cost of an FAA facility, largely because contract controllers work for considerably less compensation than their FAA counterparts. Contract ATC service providers also staff their facilities with fewer people per shift than the FAA. (Streamlined FAA staffing, however, has raised red flags and has been listed as a contributing factor in a number of accidents and agency embarrassments, including instances last spring when controllers working alone fell asleep on the job.)

Tower closures will not sit well with any of the hundreds of airport managers or sponsors the cuts might affect, especially since most probably expended political capital to help open those towers in the first place. Dickerson’s sources say many wheels are already in motion to convince members of Congress to push back against the proposed cuts. The FAA has declined to comment.

Whether or not the proposed cuts will take effect will become clear next month when the President’s 2013 budget rolls off the presses.


They operate for 1/16th the cost of FAA towers? Doesn't that tell you where to make the cuts? Cut the FAA they are grossly overstaffed. Don't cut our important contract towers who work so hard to make aviation safe at our smaller airports. Take a look elsewhere to cut at airports. FAA and TSA are the ones you need to look at at all airports as well as FAA FSDO's

the article is flawed in many aspects. aviation cash comes from the aviation trust fund paid by users through taxes on your airline tickets and aviation gas. faa controllers do not typically stay at just at one tower. they may move around to ever increasingly more difficult towers, tracons, and centers as their career progresses. contract towers operate far less operations than even the lowest volume faa tower. they do it with very few controllers, typically 1 on duty, who are mostly retired from faa. i would be very interested how they concluded contract towers operate just as safe as faa since faa towers provide much more oversight and standards of practice.
also, tsa has nothing to do with the faa and i dunno why you brought up fsdo's.

You obviously have no clue what happens in a contract tower or on airfields that use their service. Your response is flawed in its entirety. Controllers do stay at one tower, once their opening in their region becomes available because recertification is required at each airfield. Contract towers DO NOT operate at a lower volume than FAA controlled towers, in MANY cases. Recall that the age requirement, read discrimination, for the FAA is 31 so your comment that most contract tower controllers are retired FAA is simply, and to put it kindly, false.

Cutting contract towers does not make sense. If contract towers cost 1/16th of FAA towers then instead of closing 120 contract towers they could convert less than 10 FAA towers to contract towers and save the same amount.

Better to turn off the NDBs and save millions on annual maintainence than cut these towers.... I think each NDB costs $20,000 a year to maintain. Google 'FAA Contract Towers' for a list. I never realized how many I use until I saw the list. Remarkable service from these folks.

Makes me laugh how those who scream the loudest for "AUSTERITY NOW!" scream the loudest when it's their ox being gored.

Suck it up boys and girls, there's plenty more where this came from- if you don't want to become Greece- or pay user fees.

Nobody would complain if FAA would start closing their expensive towers and not the cheaper contract ones.
If you have two good cars and one is 16 times cheaper to run which one would you sell to save money? FAA would sell the cheaper car. Makes sense?

We could save the money by expanding the contract towers, not closing them. Move them into some of the smaller FAA towers and save money.

1/16th of what towers? Comparing ORD or ATL to some small tower in the middle of nowhere? I can guarantee you that the FAA does not save as much money as this article tries to make you believe. What is not added to the total is the cost of maintaining all the equipment and the building which is paid for by the government. the only thing contracted is the workers, who are forced to work with minimum staffing at a level that decreases safety. When you add in the profit for the contacting company the cost pretty close compared to the government.

Do you seriously think that anyone would compare ORD to some small tower in the middle of nowhere? In that case ratio would be much greater.
From my experience I can tell that we have two towers nearby. One contract tower and one FAA. Airports are very similar with one runway and pretty heavy, mostly GA traffic, same working hours and identically looking towers. There are 5 controllers working at contract tower and 15 at FAA tower. You do the math.

Sorry Kevin, but you would be wrong. Your example points out that there are 5 controllers working at the contracted field. 5x16=80, which is more controllers than work at ORD or ATL. Authorized Staffing for Fully certified controllers is 65 and 57 respectively at those facilities. Again, the FAA pays for everything except manpower at contracted facilities. Check your facts.

Oops, my bad. If I would have written that there are 16 controllers in one tower and 1 controller in another would you have agreed with ratio of 1/16?

Once again the big factor on cost at faa towers is their union contract. I worked for the gov 35 years and everyone except ATC employees had restrictions on their overtime pay. If you were over a certain pay scale you often made less on O T that reg time. Not true with atc. They got full time and half no matter what. An addition , everyone that worked on their equipment got the same treatment.

No where else in gov does this happen except the Post Office. Thats why your stamps keep getting more expensive.

I don't know what you are talking about almost any job makes time and a half for overtime and in the govt its standard. Also, the post office has nothing to do with this since they don't receive money from congress, they make money from postage sales.

I am a 5500 hour pilot and frequently go to airports with contract NFCT towers (NFCT=non-federal control tower). Many NFCT's have very few movements per day, I presume the $6/gallon aviation fuel cost has cut deeply into the amount of traffic at these and "all" airport locations. I have no problem with making these "Un-controlled" airports. I do not feel threatened to use un-controlled airfields nor do I think there is any significant danger in doing so.

Where I base my aircraft in the Indianapolis Indiana area they have bantered around the idea of placing a tower at our airport during briefings with local pilot owners and the airport authority. When it was pointed out that the cost per based aircraft was much more than the yearly,per aircraft hanger rents: it was soon discovered that the aircraft owner pilots preferred no tower.

I think closing contract towers is an excellent way of cutting FAA costs. I do not think there will have a negative effect on safety.

I do believe that the closings should be selected by traffic count rather than looking at those with air carrier activity only. There are some contract towers that handle considerably more traffic than only those with air carrier activity.

First let me clear up one typo we made that may shift the discussion just a bit. Contract towers operate at about 1/6 th the cost of an FAA facility. It was incorrectly printed as 1/16, so my apologies for that. We fixed it here now in case you missed it.

On the accident front, from what I recall in my research on this story, they were simple statistics ... there seemed to be no more accidents and incidents at contract towers as at FAA staffed ones. The kicker though is the reporting that might skew the data, I think.

And to John's point about costs being the same as FAA towers. The local airport usually pays for the building and the upkeep, but yes, FAA pays for the radios. I have a tough time believing though that this all comes out in the wash. Maybe a few towers might not be saving as much as others, but the data is there. We'll run it ... you look at it and find the flaws and I'll report them.

Rob Mark

With fewer people on duty, how likely is a controller working alone to turn himself in for a violation in which no one was hurt?

Its not about turning oneself in, its about reporting incidents, regardless of blame. Ive filed at least 20 since inception of the new reporting process.

Ive also ignored pleas from pilits begging me NOT to report a deviation.

It makes no since to cut our armed forces and keep funding these low actitive towers, some of these tower have no more than 30 to 50 operations per day, I
think they should have at least 100,000 ops to stay open.

Thats because youre stupid. All it takes is 2 airplanes, or one airplane and a vehicle for lives to be lost. And.... it occurs on an almost DAILY basis. Without us, lots of lives will be lost. Mark those words, prepare to eat yours

100,000 ops to stay open? Maybe you should start closing FAA towers then. There are more FCT working more than that number than FAA towers. Check your facts!

I work at a primary up/down with a small FAA tower nearby and a fairly busy uncontrolled field also close by. Many local pilots prefer the uncontrolled field because its easier in and out. They can depart VFR and pick up airborne instead of waiting for releases.

I also think the "safety" numbers are skewed. How many people working alone in a contract tower are going to call a deal on themselves? It's not like they have ASDE, AMASS, or a snitch to deal with. Hell, most their traffic is allowed on the RWY simultaneously anyway.

At GTU we had one flight school that was out of control, often having a dozen or more aircraft doing pattern touch and goes, having airshow accidents, occasional airplane collisions. Arduous to take off to depart, or enter the pattern to return. It was politically impossible to throttle this person, so the FAA was talked into installing a contract ATC tower, which did. Now, there isn't much for the tower to do (listen to the tower chatter over the Internet).

Here is the reason these cuts are being proposed (taken from the budget to be signed by the President):

The bill provides $7,618,352,000 for the Air Traffic Organization,
which is $149,038,000 less than the budget request and
$160,000,000 above the fiscal year 2011 enacted level.
National Air Traffic Controller Association Contract Increase.—
The Committee recommendation includes $160,000,000 for costs associated
with the current air traffic controller contract, reached
through binding arbitration in September of 2009, which mandates
a 3% raise each year for all air traffic controllers. The contract will
cost the federal government at least $669,000,000 in direct and indirect
costs during the term of the contract.
While this agreement has provided much needed stability in
terms of labor management relations, it has come at a great cost
to the taxpayer and has set unreasonable expectations throughout
the rest of the workforce in terms of raises, future negotiations,
and labor management relations between other bargaining units
and the agency.
The Committee directs the FAA to better manage the costs of future
contracts with the controllers and other bargaining units
throughout the agency. In this new era of fiscal responsibility, it
is incumbent on the FAA to negotiate labor contracts that are fair
to worker’s rights without exposing the taxpayer to significant cost
increases outside of the scope of agreements in the private sector
and elsewhere in the government. Without a tightening of future
agreements with other covered labor unions, the resources for
NextGen and many other future initiatives will be in doubt.

This is how poor management bankrupts a business, agency or Nation. It is not NATCA's fault, they are just doing what unions do, trying to get as much money and benefits for the workers they represent regardless of the financial condition of the employer. This realization is evident in the rather stern language in regards to the FAA's current agreement with NATCA and the guarenteed 3% raise regardless of the current cost of living. Think about it, $669,000,000 in guarenteed raises and benefits for a 5 year contract. A-Rod and Albert Pujols should hire the NATCA contract negotiators !

I am not saying there are facilities, both FAA and FCT, that should not be closed but common sense should prevail and a better deciding factor than 10,000 military operations and/or scheduled service should be developed.

As an FAA controller with more than 20 years in I can tell you that contract towers are not as safe or error free as the data suggests. I have seen on dozens of occasions through my career an FCT controller having an operation error or deviation. Since he is working all positions combined, with no peers or supervisors around those errors are seldon, if ever reported. Most people simply will not throw themselves under the bus. In the FAA we have myriad electronic snitches as well as peers and random audits to keep us honest.

One of the reasons that controllers make so much is because we are forced to retire by federal law at age 56. We cannot work until 60, 65 or 75 if we want. For those badmouthing controllers I would encourage you to go and visit your local tower, center or tracon and spend a few hours there. I think it will be an eye opening experience for you, and you just might appreciate all of the things we bail pilots out of on a daily basis, including not reporting hundreds of pilot deviations a year.

To suggest that somehow FCTs provide substandard service is comical.

I have 22 years of experience, 10 in the USAF and the remainder in a FCT. I have enjoyed both.

FCTs have fewer safety violations per operation than FAA towers. We are staffed with 2-4 controllers during peak business hours. We are at a growing airport by all measure(flight school, airlines, and amenities) We are subject to the same rules and regulations as any FAA tower. We just happen to do it better.

Why are we successful? Experience, training, schedule and teamwork.

We were previously trained in either the FAA or a Branch of the military. We aren't open 24 hours, allowing controllers needed rest. If someone doesn't certify here in the allotted time, we let them go. We diligently work together and help to identify potential conflicts rather than sit back and let someone tank and then file paperwork.

We hold ourselves to a higher standard specifically for the this type of situation, an answer for the doubters.

See you at 56!

Awesome read! Well said!

To an extent, I can understand the concern over Tower closures. However, like every other issue there is at least one more side to the story. Case in point:
Hernando County Airport aka Brooksville aka Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport has been grosly negligent in it's factual reporting in their Benefit Cost Analysis in order to secure Federal Funding for their Contract Tower. According to the program that has since been terminated that they applied under, a ratio of 1.0 cost to benefit was required to secure funding. In order to meet this ration the Airport Administration, (Don Silvernell), created an "alternate" case study that was not based on actual aircraft operations at the airfield in order to meet this ratio. Accordingly, the "Alternate" case study submits that there is a break even number of aircraft operations of 90480 per year or 247 per day or 1 aircraft operation every 5.8 minutes. The first day of tower operation they supposedly logged 137 (still a gross overestimation in my opinion). Just over half of the required amount.
This being said, in order to support those airports that the Contract Control Towers are a viable and factual solution, maybe we should focus on the municipal and county airports that are abusing the Federal Contract Control Tower Program for small town political reasons. KBKV has spent approximately 2.25 million of tax payer money to build the tower and now are supposedly going to spend an estimated $450,000.00 per year in Federal funds to have the FAA fully fund the operation of the tower. A tower that in reality has not even met 60% of the actual number required to meet the full funding requirement in the first place. Also, I am not sure how you fund a tower that is to be staffed from 0700 to 2200 (15 hrs) with a consortium of FTC controllers for $450,000 to include benefits. Seems like a challenge from a staffing model.

After reading all these pro comments too put people out of work amazes me.I am a vetern of the Navy and work at one of these airports. I feel I provide agood service and make an honest living supporting my family. Ago, weekday you all want to do is put over 500 people out of work. How about we stop spending billions on a pointless war and start rebuilding this country. Think of it this way; for every million dollar missile we launch into the desert we could keep 2 towers operating for over a year. Or pay teachers more, or put more police on the streets. Why isn't Congress talking about this. Boggles the mind.

ive worked at both faa and contract vfr towers and faa radar facilities. Very frequently- as complexity increases, staffing and procedures increase at the faa facilities so that the ratio of traffic worked per controller per hour is very close regardless of where you work. i do think the faa is bloated with useless paperpushing-hide in-the-office-doing-cover-our- a**-reports management and hour on/ hour off lazy overpaid union employees who find every way they can to suck up taxpayer $.
If i had to pick the more efficient operation i'd say the contract tower personnel are far less whiny and equally professional. They make do with far less resources, (equipment and personnel), have a greater degree of cooperation, and since management is minimal they are sufficiently trained to handle all the angles of atc operations. As far as deciding which towers to close- it's too bad they don't have time to independently audit airport operations because the traffic counts wherever i worked were about as close to fair and accurate as politicians are to honesty. What is it about government that encourages that? Maybe never having to directly answer to the consumer? Sell the FAA atc ops off to the highest contract bidder and let them manage the operation from ground control on up. There were several contractors that have been chomping at the bit for this since FSS was contracted. And though loud crying was heard when that took place (from the overpaid govt employees who were about to get their paychecks reduced) there is nary a whimper now.

All that has to be done is increase the Landing Fees these private aircraft pay for the use of the airport.
Strange how no one has mentioned this.

As a retired FAA controller with over 31 yrs experience working at the three busisest airport Tower/Tracon's in Fla and now working as a Contract Controller at a smaller Fla airport, I can assure you we are worth every penny that the FAA wishes to cut. My co workers like myself are highly experienced, retired Controllers that came back because we love the job that we do. The service we provide to the users of our airport is immeasurable in dollars! We handle a complex mix of pilot training, banner towing, airborne sightseeing, combined with a steady influx of air carrier traffic all day long. I can guarantee you, without us, the results wouldn't be pretty! All it takes is one tragedy to realize our true worth to the NAS. Are we worth the money? You Bet!

Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, Inc. (PATCO)

For Immediate Release

"Air Safety at Risk"

The decision by Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administrator (FAA), Michael Huerta, to close down 149 Federal Contract Towers (FCT’s) due to sequestration is unjustified, absurd and needs to be stopped. The FCT program has been around for almost 30 years and has been lauded by the DOT’s Inspector General as highly efficient, cost effective and safe.

The Air Traffic Controllers that man these towers are highly professional, and meet or exceed the same jobs requirements as FAA controllers. They provide a critical service at their respective community airports to ensure that "air safety" is the number one priority.

Contrary to what the FAA says, the closing of these towers will seriously jeopardize "air safety" and the overall efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS). The "No Margin for Error" slogan is out the door because the control towers will not be manned.

Beyond the tower closure, the rippling effect will cause, serious delays, confusion and loss of revenues to local airports and the business community as a whole.

The FAA's decision to close control towers is wrong, and their sanity on this issue should be called into question.

Ron Taylor