USCTA Fact Sheet
American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE)/ U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA) Fact Sheet on FAA Contract Tower Program
FAA contract towers enhance air traffic safety
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began the contract tower program in 1982 in an effort to reopen air traffic control (ATC) towers that were closed as a result of the 1981 controller's strike. To date, there are 189 FAA contract towers, which provide visual flight rule (VFR) non-radar ATC services. The program was expanded as part of the Clinton administration's National Performance Review in the early 1990's. The program consistently receives high marks from airport operators with contract towers and aviation users.
The record is clear - the FAA contract tower program has unquestionably provided an added safety margin and enhanced aviation safety. The success of this program is underscored by the fact that it has grown from a handful of airports to 189 contract towers around the country. Having an air traffic control tower is a clear aviation safety enhancement. If not for the contract tower program, many of these communities might not receive the added safety and operational benefits of having an ATC tower. In fact, FAA officials routinely point to the contract tower program as an illustration of an important aviation safety success story that has earned and won full support from the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Congress.
The aviation safety, efficiency and cost benefits of this program have been further validated through constant oversight by the FAA, Congress, repeated audits by the Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General (IG), including the most recent audit released April 12, 2000, investigations by General Accounting Office and other data.
FAA contract towers have an excellent safety record, according to FAA statistics. In CYs 1998 and 1999 combined, 189 FAA visual flight rule (VFR) contract towers had one operational error/deviation for approximately every 1.63 million operations (16 operational errors and 26.2 million operations combined in CY 1998 and 1999). To compare similar operational environments, FAA Level II and III VFR towers in CYs 1998 and 1999 (next size up from FAA contract towers; total of 69; these towers handle only VFR traffic just like FAA VFR contract towers; just more traffic, more complex airspace, etc.) had one operational error/deviation for approximately every 623,000 operations (49 operational errors and 30.5 million operations combined in CY 1998 and 1999). These numbers are from the FAA's Air Traffic Office and the National Airspace Information Monitoring System. An operational error is when a controller fails to maintain minimum separation between an aircraft or between aircraft and ground vehicles. A deviation is when there is a breakdown in coordination/communication between controllers in the tower.
Are contract controllers required to report operational errors?
Just like FAA-operated towers, the operations at contract towers are subject to comprehensive evaluations by the FAA that determine whether these facilities are complying with all safety requirements, including the requirement to report all operational errors. Contract towers are evaluated using the same standards and requirements that apply to FAA-operated control towers. Just as with the FAA controller workforce, controllers would be subject to disciplinary action if they were found to have intentionally failed to report an operational error.
FAA controllers are subject to retirement at age 56, but contract controllers are not.
The retirement age for FAA controllers was established as part of a comprehensive legislative package enacted by the Congress in 1972, which also provided the authority to establish a maximum entry age for FAA controllers and provided special early retirement benefits to controllers. Even though the impetus for the legislation was concern over equipment as well as staffing and working conditions at the higher level FAA facilities, the retirement age was established as a uniform requirement for controllers at all FAA facilities without regard to the complexity or amount of traffic handled by particular types of facilities. Thus, controllers at the less demanding facilities such as the low activity VFR towers were covered by the same retirement age as those who serve in the busiest FAA air traffic control centers. It is important to recognize that the DOT IG has examined the safety of contract towers and FAA carefully monitors the quality and safety of services provided by such towers, and both have found a high level of safety performance by the contract tower workforce. Contract controllers also are subject to more frequent medical examinations. Contract towers accordingly benefit greatly by having well experienced controllers.
What are the medical requirements for contract tower controllers?
The medical standards for FAA controllers and contract tower controllers are essentially the same. FAA controllers are subject to medical standards established by the Office of Personnel Management, which are comparable to FAA Class II medical standards. Contract controllers are required to obtain Class II medical certificates from the FAA as outlined in the Federal Aviation Regulations. The current difference between the requirements is seen in the frequency of examinations for certain individuals. Whereas contract tower controllers are required to undergo examinations annually to ensure they meet the Class II standards, FAA controllers at age 39 and below are only required to undergo a medical every two years.
What are the hiring standards by ATC contractors?
Controllers hired at contract towers typically are from the pool of former FAA, civilian, and Department of Defense (DOD) military controllers. Controllers working at FAA contract control towers average 18 years of air traffic control experience with approximately 50 percent of the workforce having previous FAA controller experience. Each controller, regardless of his or her prior qualifications, must be certified and licensed as a controller at the specific contract tower site where that controller is going to work. Contract tower personnel are required to meet the same certification and currency requirements as FAA controllers.
What is the status of the NATCA federal lawsuit against FAA?
United States District Judge Ann Aldrich in April 2000 issued a ruling in the NATCA suit against the contract tower program denying both NATCA's and FAA's motions for summary judgment in the case. Both parties were ordered by the Court to submit written responses to five factual questions regarding air traffic control. The Court is then to make a determination on possible remanding of this case back to the FAA or to grant summary judgment. NATCA filed the lawsuit in the early 199's in an effort to stop FAA from expanding the current contract tower program.
Is air traffic control an inherently federal governmental function?
Pursuant to the 1994 National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) federal lawsuit against the FAA contract tower program, the court ordered FAA to conduct a study under Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-76 of VFR air traffic control. As a result, the FAA carefully analyzed applicable law and determined that VFR air traffic control is not an inherently governmental function, but a commercial function. In a memorandum dated January 28, 1999, FAA Chief Counsel Nicholas Garaufis stated that "OMB Circular A-76, its Revised Handbook, and OFPP Policy Letter 92-1 plainly support this conclusion." The memorandum further noted that "VFR control is a ministerial operation because it is a formula driven task performed in accordance with specific, detailed procedures, not contemplative choices concerning public policy." The memorandum observed that the discretionary functions related to air traffic control belong to the FAA Administrator, who uses VFR air traffic control as one of the Administrator's "operational tools in achieving the policy goals of safe, navigable airspace." The FAA would exercise "an appropriate level of control over VFR flights by inspection and certification of all VFR controllers and sites."
What are the training requirements for contract vs. FAA controllers?
Efforts to compare training for control controllers with the amount and types of training for controllers at FAA facilities are not particularly useful, given the significantly different recruitment sources for these two entities. FAA new hires are often individuals who have no prior controller experience and who, therefore, require a dramatically different training curriculum than the already-experienced controllers who comprise the recruitment pool for contract towers. In fact, the typical contract tower controller when hired has previously served as a journeyman controller at an FAA, military or other contract tower facility. The average experience level for the contract tower workforce is 18 years of controlling traffic with approximately 50 percent of the workforce having previous FAA controller experience. With regard to continuous training requirements, contract tower controllers are required to comply with the same standards as FAA controllers. Each contract tower controller receives his or her "facility rating" to control traffic at a facility from an FAA-certified examiner.
Contract controllers are required to comply with the same training standards as FAA controllers including, but not limited to: proficiency, supplemental, skill enhancement, remedial, national, regional and local training requirements. Contract controllers also receive Technical Training Discussions every six months, as required by the FAA. The FAA evaluates contract tower locations, which includes ensuring that all required training items have been completed and properly documented. Certain contract companies also survey local users of airport's they serve in an effort to identify any positive and/or negative trends that may affect their various locations.
Does contracting lead to a sole source provider, not competition as envisioned?
The DOT IG has not indicated that there have been any irregularities in the FAA's contracting procedures. The critical factor that should be borne in mind is that contracting out these facilities saves the government considerable money over using the government as the sole source provider of services. Furthermore, the national contract for all FAA contract towers is re-bid every five years to maximize competition in the process. For instance, there are three companies providing service at 180 Level I VFR towers across the country today. Taxpayers and the flying public are, thus, able to obtain safety services at more locations for less money.
What are the working conditions at contract towers vs. FAA towers?
Compensation levels for contract controllers are established by the U.S. Department of Labor. Also, since contract tower employees are not subject to a national union agreement, some of the internal FAA labor restrictions--such as the amount of time during the day that a controller does not actually work controlling traffic--do not exist at contract towers. Rather than posing a problem, this actually is a significant benefit to the traveling public as it has the effect of improving the productivity of the controller workforce. And this added productivity is fully consistent both with FAA standards for hours that controllers can work and with the interests of safety, as has been found consistently in FAA safety evaluations of contract towers. Thus, the additional productivity demonstrated by the highly dedicated contract tower workforce has helped keep the costs of air traffic control down, meaning that many more communities have been able to benefit from having control towers than would otherwise have been possible given limited FAA budget resources. While DOT IG Ken Mead reported a discrepancy in staffing at certain facilities during the1998 audit, the most recent audit indicates this discrepancy has been addressed and corrected.