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NATCA And DOT’s OIG Testified Before Congress On FAA Contract Tower Program
By Mike Mitchell

July 19, 2012 - On Wednesday the Department of Transportation’s office of Inspector General testified before the House Subcommittee on Aviation regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Contract Tower Program. The Inspector General testified that, based on their ongoing work, contract towers continue to provide safe air traffic services.  

Established in 1982, the program currently oversees 250 contract towers providing air traffic control services to airports nationwide. Contract towers have a lower number and rate of reported safety incidents and Agency-identified deficiencies when compared with similar FAA towers.   

In addition, contract towers remain strongly supported by users and continue to provide cost efficient air traffic control services. Their work found that the average contract tower costs roughly $1.5 million less to operate annually than a comparable FAA tower, largely due to lower staffing and salary levels.   

However, the Inspector General noted that FAA can improve its oversight of the program by implementing a voluntary safety incident reporting program at contract towers, reviewing labor hours worked to ensure contract compliance, and implementing processes to regularly evaluate contract towers as required by Congress. 

The FAA’s periodic evaluations of air traffic facilities’ compliance with the FAA directives also indicate that fewer procedural, training, and administrative deficiencies are found at contract towers.  


Facility evaluations for a sample of 30 contract towers conducted between May 2006 and September 2010 and a sample of 30 comparable FAA towers conducted between January 2007 and September 2010 identified a total of 156 deficiencies at the 30 contract towers and 338 deficiencies at the 30 FAA towers.  While none of the deficiencies cited were serious in nature, some of the most frequently identified deficiencies at both contract and FAA towers include outdated training records, inadequate quality assurance reviews by facility managers, incomplete supplemental controller training, and improper position relief briefings and radio communications by controllers. 

National and facility officials from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), who represent controllers at 63 contract towers, support the cost-share aspect of the current program. However, they raised concerns that contract towers have much lower staffing levels than comparable FAA towers, are often staffed with only 1 controller for portions of the day, and that controller certification training at contract towers can take as little as 30 days, while at an FAA facility it can take from 1 to 5 years.


National Air Traffic Controllers Association Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert affirmed the organization’s support for parts of the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) Program, but also discussed NATCA’s concerns before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation today. Gilbert explained that NATCA supports the cost-share component of the FCT Program as well as its allowance for building a new tower where one does not already exist. NATCA does not support the expansion of the program to existing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) towers by converting or transferring current towers. 

There is a dangerous lack of FAA oversight at many of these towers and NATCA is concerned that the FCT Program is pushing the outer limit of the responsible margin of safety with bare bones staffing and inadequate support for essential equipment. “NATCA represents air traffic controllers at 63 contract towers, and we are proud of the stellar work they do,” said Gilbert. “We offer recommendations for improvement because contract towers need to provide a better working environment for the controllers who staff them.” 

NATCA has made five recommendations for contract tower improvement, including that contract towers should be held to the same staffing standards as FAA towers and that contract towers should model the FAA’s safety culture in allowing controllers to report incidents without fear of punitive retaliation. Other highlights from Gilbert’s testimony: 

- “There is a fundamental difference between an FAA tower and a contract tower. The FAA model was built on the premise of redundancy to prioritize safety above all, whereas a contract tower has incentive to prioritize the bottom line. NATCA is not criticizing the fact that profit margins are a factor, but we must keep this reality in mind. In addition to the different motivations, there exists a stark difference between a contract tower and a FAA tower’s support systems, including equipment and facility maintenance and staffing.” 

-“It is NATCA’s position that there is a fundamental flaw in comparing contract towers to FAA towers in terms of safety as defined by operational errors. The flaw in any comparison derives from the fact that errors are unevenly reported – the FAA has a true safety culture, where all controllers and employees are encouraged to report all safety issues, including errors, while contract towers are dictated by a punitive culture that discourages controllers and their supervisors from reporting errors.” 

-“NATCA understands that neither the FAA nor Congress is currently discussing expansion of the Federal Contract Tower program. Again, for the record, NATCA is opposed to expanding the contract tower program. Contract towers have their place, but under the current system they push the responsible limit of the margin of safety with short staffing, unreliable equipment, and a lack of technical support for the equipment. As a result of understaffing, controllers are required to tend to administrative duties while on position, as well as the responsibility for on-the-spot maintenance of any equipment malfunctions. These distractions mean that contract towers are approaching the outer limit of the margin of safety.”

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