The FAA, its funding held up by union-inspired congressional
resistance, has fired back, with its own information:
THE FACTS ABOUT THE FAA CONTRACT TOWER PROGRAM
For over 20 years, the
FAA’s Contract Tower Program has provided safe and efficient
air traffic control (ATC) services at visual flight rule (VFR)
towers throughout the continental United States as well as in
Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Saipan. VFR control towers
are located at airports where visual and limited instrument flight
rules are used. Many of these towers have small radar displays to
assist the controllers in maintaining a high level of safety by
providing traffic and safety information. These towers, however, do
not use radar to separate aircraft but employ other methods and
procedures for the identification and sequencing of arriving and
Today, there are 219 towers in the program (195 towers fully
funded by the FAA and 24 cost-shared), making it a key component of
our nation’s aviation system. Without the program, many
communities would not have vital air traffic services.
Following the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization
(PATCO) strike in 1981, the FAA began a pilot program to contract
for air traffic services at several VFR towers that were closed due
to staffing shortages. By 1994, the program had expanded to over 27
towers, and Congress provided more funding to convert additional
FAA towers that provide basic local services. The success of the
program led to the inclusion of many new towers at airports that
never before had an FAA-operated tower.
In 1999, Congress provided further funding for a cost-sharing
program, which enabled airports that would not have qualified to
receive a tower under the Contract Tower Program to obtain a tower
by sharing a portion of the costs with the FAA.
Until very recently, the program enjoyed the support of labor
and management, including seven former Administrators. As recently
as July 15, 2002, former Administrator Jane Garvey had the
following to say about the program in a speech to the Contract
"It's no secret about the success of the program. The Federal
Contract Tower Program has been recognized by the U.S. Congress,
the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Department of
Transportation Inspector General as a cost-effective way to provide
air traffic services at small airports, and this is the important
part - - at airports that otherwise would not have the important
safety benefits of air traffic control. Safety - - that is the
reason this program exists."
A STRONG SAFETY RECORD
The Contract Tower Program has a remarkable safety record.
Department of Transportation Inspector General Ken Mead, whose
office has conducted four separate audits of the FAA Contract Tower
Program, starting in 1998, has concluded that the program provides
cost-effective services that are comparable in quality and safety
to FAA-operated towers. These reports are available on the
Inspector General’s website at http://www.oig.dot.gov.
In the latest report, issued September 4, 2003, the Inspector
General found that in terms of safety of operations, both the
contract towers and their FAA-staffed equivalents "fell well below
the FAA's FY 2002 overall average of 6.70 operational errors for
every 1 million operations handled."
Mr. Mead went on to conclude that "In FY 2002, contract towers
had 8 operational errors/deviations, which was a rate of 0.49
incidents per million operations handled. The 71 FAA-staffed VFR
towers had 38 operational errors/deviations, which was a rate of
2.70 incidents per million operations handled. The FAA-staffed VFR
towers in ATC grade levels 5 and 6 (those towers that are the most
comparable to contract towers) had 9 operational errors/deviations,
which was a rate of 2.03 incidents per million operations
Contract towers are staffed by highly qualified controllers who
are required to have the same certification and meet all the same
safety regulations as FAA controllers. Contract tower controllers
must have prior ATC experience and a valid Control Tower
Operator’s certificate in order to be hired into the program.
In fact, the vast majority of contract controllers are former FAA
and military controllers. FAA certifies all contract controllers,
and contract towers are monitored regularly by the FAA’s Air
Traffic Evaluations staff.
SAVING THE TAXPAYER MILLIONS OF DOLLARS
Contract towers save on average over $900,000 per year per tower
over FAA staffed VFR towers. The Department of Transportation
Inspector General concluded in his September 4, 2003 report that
"if the 189 fully-funded contract towers had been staffed with FAA
controllers in FY 2002, the agency’s annual operating costs
could have been $173 million higher."
The cost of the
Contract Tower Program has increased over the years. However, the
increase in costs is directly related to the addition of new towers
into the program and a rise in controller’s salaries. The
average cost of a contract tower in FY 2000 was approximately
$288,000; at the end of FY 2003 the average cost of a contract
tower is expected to be about $381,000 (including total FAA costs
and local airport share for the contract tower cost-share
facilities). From the beginning of FY 2000 to the end of FY 2003,
the number of contract towers in the program increased by 34% (163
Additionally, salaries for contract controllers, which account
for the vast majority of the total program costs, are set by the
U.S. Department of Labor and are, in part, based on increased
salaries paid to FAA controllers as a result of the 1998 contract
negotiated by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association
(NATCA). During the same time period, the budget for the FAA air
traffic services increased from $4.7 billion to $5.7 billion.
Contracts for the program are not awarded to the lowest
bidder, but rather to companies that are able to provide
the "best value" as determined by rigorous evaluation criteria.
FAA's evaluation criteria that governed the selection of the
contractors for the contract tower program, technical and quality
factors were more important than price in determining "best value."
Companies that provide ATC services to the Contract Tower Program
are thoroughly evaluated during the bidding process.
FAA REAUTHORIZATION AND THE CONTRACT TOWER PROGRAM
The conference report on the FAA Reauthorization Bill, H.R.
2115, the "VISION 100 – Century of Aviation Reauthorization
Act," does not privatize the air traffic control
system. Contract towers are operated to federal standards,
as monitored by the FAA, and are not privatized services. In fact,
the report prohibits the core of the air traffic control system
from being privatized or outsourced, including controllers who
staff all major airport towers and high-altitude control facilities
for the four-year duration of the bill. Controllers at these
facilities account for 94% of FAA’s controller workforce.
The conference report also protects the FAA’s current
Contract Tower Program and maintains the status quo by simply
preserving the option for the FAA to add 69 additional VFR towers
to the program if that proves advisable for any of those
In a recent letter to House-Senate FAA reauthorization
conference committee leaders, the Department of Transportation
Inspector General Ken Mead emphasized his long-standing endorsement
of the FAA’s Contract Tower Program. He urged the conferees
to keep open the option to convert the VFR towers still operated by
FAA to the Contract Tower Program. The Inspector General added
that, with the sharp decline in aviation trust fund revenues and
the most recent projections of the federal deficit, the FAA needs
the flexibility to ensure VFR towers are operated in the safest and
most cost-effective manner possible.
FACT SHEET ON THE CONTRACT TOWER PROGRAM:
- FACT: All contract controllers are FAA certified and contract
tower facilities are monitored on a regular basis by the agency.
Additionally, the vast majority of contract controllers are former
FAA and military controllers. Based on FAA figures, contract towers
account for only 10% of the FAA’s total labor costs for
control towers nationwide, yet they handle approximately 25% of ATC
operations at all towers on an annual basis. Further, the
operational error/deviation rate is 2.5 times better at contract
towers than at similar VFR towers staffed by the FAA.
- FACT: According to the
FAA's analysis, the contract tower program provides annual savings
to the agency of $54 million. The average cost of a contract tower
in FY 2000 was approximately $288,000; at the end of FY 2003 the
average cost of a contract tower is expected to be about $381,000
(including total FAA costs and local airport share for the contract
tower cost-share facilities). From the beginning of FY 2000 to the
end of FY 2003, the number of contract towers in the program
increased by 34 % (163 to 219).
Additionally, salaries for contract controllers, which account for
the vast majority of the total program costs, are set by the U.S.
Department of Labor and are, in part, based on increased salaries
paid to FAA controllers as a result of the 1998 contract negotiated
by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). During
the same time period, the budget for the FAA air traffic services
increased from $4.7 billion to $5.7 billion.
- FACT: FAA controllers performed superbly on 9/11 when the FAA
shut down the entire air traffic control system. It should be
noted, however, that contract controllers at the 219 FAA contract
tower airports nationwide safely handled hundreds of flights that
day as well, working side by side with FAA controllers at terminal
radar control facilities (TRACON), en route centers that handle
flights between terminal areas, and instrument flight rule (IFR)
towers that use radar to separate aircraft.
- FACT: When President George W. Bush flies to his ranch in
Texas, Air Force One usually flies into an airport near Waco that
has a FAA contract tower, and contract controllers there handle the
flight. The same thing occurs when Vice President Cheney flies to
his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which also is served by a FAA
contract tower. The same flight and security procedures are used
for flights that carry the President or Vice President regardless
of whether the tower controllers are FAA controllers or contract
- FACT: The U.S. military is a long-time supporter and user of
contract controllers at a number of military facilities. For more
than 20 years, the U.S. Army, U.S Air Force, and Air National Guard
have recognized contract ATC as a cost-effective and reliable
solution at many military locations. ATC companies are required to
possess facility clearances from the Department of Defense (DOD)
for work at military contract towers. There are also a number of
military air traffic control facilities that have been contracted
out over the years. Based on FAA figures, contract towers
nationwide handled approximately 612,000 U.S. military operations
in CY 2002.
- FACT: Of the 100 busiest towers in the country, 58 are
FAA-staffed major towers, 37 are FAA-staffed VFR towers and five
are FAA contract towers. Also, based on FAA air traffic figures for
CY 2002, 15 of the current FAA contract towers handled more air
traffic (in terms of operations) than 17 of the lowest-ranked 71
FAA-staffed VFR towers. Sixty (60) of the current FAA contract
towers handled more air traffic than three of the lowest-ranked (in
terms of operations) of the 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers. All contract
towers and these FAA-staffed VFR towers use the same VFR tower
- FACT: Many controllers at FAA contract towers are members of
organized labor. In fact, of the current 219 FAA contract towers,
approximately 35% of controllers are members of either NATCA or