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U.S. Contract Tower Association


BACKGROUND: FAA's Contract Tower Program, which began in 1982, has a proven track record. It provides for FAA to contract air traffic control (ATC) services to the private sector at visual flight rule (VFR) airports. The primary advantages of this program are enhanced safety, improved ATC services and significant VFR ATC cost savings to FAA. As of September 2003, the program includes 219 towers. The contract tower program provides "cost-effective services that are comparable to the quality and safety of FAA-operated towers," according to Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) Kenneth Mead.

This fact sheet highlights many myths about the program voiced by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and refutes them with factual information.

MYTH: NATCA claims the conference report on the FAA Reauthorization bill (H.R.2115; Vision 100 - the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act) privatizes the nation's ATC system.

FACT: The conference report on the FAA Reauthorization bill (H.R.2115; Vision 100 - the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act) DOES NOT privatize the ATC system. In fact, the conference report prohibits for the first time in FAA history the core of the ATC system from being privatized or outsourced - i.e., TRACONs, Enroute Centers and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) towers, which account for 94 percent of the FAA controller workforce - for the four-year duration of the bill. Under current law, none of the FAA controllers are protected from outsourcing/privatization--this bill provides protection for at least 94 percent of the FAA controllers nationwide.

MYTH: NATCA claims the conference report targets 69 VFR towers for immediate contracting out.

FACT: The conference report maintains the status quo by preserving the OPTION for FAA to add 69 FAA-staffed VFR towers to the FAA contract tower program, if the agency determines it can be done safely and efficiently. This option exists today. The conference report also protects the current FAA contract towers. The DOT IG has urged Congress to keep open the option to convert the VFR towers still operated by FAA to the contract tower program. Mead added that, with the sharp decline in aviation trust fund revenues and the most recent projections of the federal deficit, FAA needs the flexibility to ensure VFR towers are operated in the safest and most cost-effective manner possible..

MYTH: NATCA states that the cost of the contract tower program is exploding and the estimated cost savings of the program are overstated.

FACT: According to the September 4, 2003, DOT IG report, between FY 2000 and FY 2002, the costs to operate the full-funded FAA contract towers increased 24.3 percent (from $55.6 million to $69.1 million), while for the same period the number of full-funded contract towers increased by 16 percent (from 163 to 189). For the same period, the costs to operate the 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers increased 16.7 percent (from $105.9 million to $123.7 million), while the number of towers remained constant. 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 NATCA. According to the IG, annual savings to taxpayers as a result of the contract tower program is $173 million.

The DOT IG also found that in FY 2002, the average cost to operate all 189 full-funded FAA contract towers was $365,608, while the average cost to operate all 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers was $1,741,935. To determine the average cost differences between comparable FAA contact towers and FAA-staffed VFR towers, the DOT IG compared the FY 2002 costs of 12 contract towers with 12 FAA-staffed VFR towers that had similar levels and type of traffic activity. The IG's analysis shows the 12 contract towers cost about $917,000 less to operate than the 12 FAA-staffed VFR towers per tower on an annual basis. Moreover, the operational error/deviation (OED) rate at these 12 FAA contract towers was 4.2 times better than for the 12 FAA-staffed VFR towers in CYs 2001-2002. Further, based on FAA figures, contract towers account for only 10 percent of FAA's total labor costs for control towers nationwide, yet they handle approximately 25 percent of ATC operations at all towers on an annual basis.

MYTH: Contract towers are not as safe as FAA-staffed towers. Controllers have less training and fewer controllers are on duty, thus degrading the level of safety and service that the controllers are able to provide.

FACT: All contract controllers are certified by FAA, and contract tower facilities are monitored on a regular basis by the agency and staffing plans at contract towers are approved by FAA. Virtually all (99 plus percent) of the FAA contract tower controllers are former FAA or U.S. military controllers. A majority of them are retired FAA or military controllers. The average years of experience are about 20 years per contract controller. Contract controllers are subject to the same rules, operational procedures and training as FAA controllers. All contract controllers also are required to have an annual FAA medical exam. According the September 4, 2003 DOT IG report, the safety rate is 5.5 times better at contract towers than at FAA-staffed VFR towers, based on FAA operational error/deviation (OED) figures. For CY 2003 (through July), the OED rate is 5 times better at contract towers vs. FAA-staffed VFR towers (total number of operations at the 219 contract towers through July, 2003 was 8.7 million with a total of four OEDs; for the same period the total number of operations at the 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers was 7 million with a total of 17 OEDs). Only two percent of contract towers had an OED for the first seven months of 2003; 18 percent of FAA-staffed VFR towers had an OED over the same period.

Moreover, the runway incursion rate was 2.3 times better at FAA contract towers than at FAA-staffed VFR towers during the period 1999-2002, according to an August 2003 FAA report. 80 percent of FAA-staffed VFR towers had at least one runway incursion during the period 1999-2002. At FAA contract towers, the rate was half of that.

In a letter to House-Senate FAA reauthorization conference committee leaders, DOT Inspector General Mead emphasized his long-standing endorsement of FAA's Contract Tower Program. Mead told members of Congress, as he has testified in the past, that his numerous audits of the program since 1998 have consistently found that "it works well" by providing "cost-effective services that are comparable to the quality and safety of FAA-operated towers." Further, Mead's office has issued four comprehensive reports that affirm the value of the contract tower program. The reports are available on the IG's website at The reports are: AV-1998-147, issued May 18, 1998; AV-1999-094, issued May 4, 1999; AV-2000-079, issued April 12, 2000, and the September 4, 2003 update of the cost and safety record of the program. In the 1998 IG report, Inspector General Mead found minor compliance issues concerning staffing at certain contract towers. In the report issued in 2000, Mr. Mead said these problems were satisfactorily resolved. The National Transportation Safety Board also has supported the FAA contract tower program.

Finally, FAA approves staffing plans for all contract towers. Regarding the claim that safety is compromised at contract towers during times when one controller in the facility, the fact is that both contract towers and the FAA-staffed VFR towers have one controller on duty on limited occasions, typically in the early morning and late evening when traffic is low. In fact, 35 of the 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers operate at certain times with just one controller.

MYTH: NATCA claims air traffic control is "inherently governmental" and controllers must be federal employees.

FACT: FAA controllers did perform 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 TRACONs, Centers and IFR towers all across the country.

Further, when President Bush flies to his ranch in Texas, Air Force One usually flies into an airport near Waco (Waco TSTC) that has an FAA contract tower, where the flight is handled by contract controllers. 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 controllers. Also, FAA contract tower controllers at Key West, Florida, International Airport aided U.S. law enforcement officials in the peaceful resolution of two hijacking incidents in which Cuban airliners were diverted to U.S. airspace. The contract controllers coordinated flight operations with the Air Defense Command and other federal law enforcement agencies. These incidents took place March 19 and April 1, 2003.

MYTH: Air traffic controllers are considered the fifth branch of the military and, therefore, controllers must be federal employees.

FACT: The U.S. military is a long time supporter and user of contract controllers at a number of military facilities, including the 8/28/03 announcement by the U.S. Air Force to use contract controllers of one of the contract tower contractors at airfield bases under U.S. military control in Afghanistan. Since the 1980s, 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. One ATC firm was actually contracted to work side-by-side with active duty military controllers under a contingency operations contract (Langley AFB and Holloman AFB). In fact, that same contractor currently has a multi-year contingency operations contract with the U.S. Air Force for air traffic control and related services requirements. This contractor is a Department of Defense (DOD) cleared clearance and obtains DOT secret clearances (where required) for it personnel.

Additionally, the newest FAA contract tower is Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which joined the program at the end of July 2003. There are also a number of military air traffic control facilities that have been contracted over the years, including Richards-Gebaur AFB; Ellington Field, TX; Fort Leavenworth, KS; Biggs Army Airfield, TX; Yuma Proving Grounds AZ; Fort Devins, MA; Fort Indian Town Gap, PA; Martinsburg Air National Guard Base (ANGB) , WV; Suffolk County ANGB, NY; Stanley County ANGB, NC; Rickenbacker ANGB, OH; Quonset ANGB, RI; Otis ANGB, MA; Pease ANGB, NH; and Gila Bend, AZ. Furthermore, a number of current FAA contract towers are located at joint military/civilian use airports, and based on FAA figures, contract towers nationwide handled approximately 612,000 U.S. military operations in CY 2002. In fact, the contract controllers at the FAA contract tower in Battle Creek, Michigan, received a special award from the 127th Wing Selfridge Air National Guard Base. The 127th Wing was deployed to Battle Creek to support Operation Noble Eagle, which was the U.S. military operation that flew military aircraft over major U.S. cities after 9/11. It is also significant to note that a large percentage of the contract tower workforce has prior military experience.

MYTH: Contract towers are located only in rural areas and handle low amounts of air traffic or only general aviation aircraft.

FACT: All contract towers and FAA-staffed VFR towers use the same tower operating procedures. Contract towers and FAA-staffed VFR towers alike serve large and small communities in both urban and rural areas. For example, reliever airports for Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Hartford, Portland, Tampa, Miami, Phoenix and others are served by FAA contract towers.

There are also a number of commercial services airports that are served by contract towers including Kona and Lihue, Hawaii; Bethel, Kenai, Kodiak, and King Salmon, Alaska; Trenton, New Jersey; Jackson Hole and Cheyenne, Wyoming; Charlottesville, Virginia; Stewart, New York; Rapid City, South Dakota; Hailey and Idaho Falls, Idaho; Missoula, Kalispell and Bozeman, Montana; Gainesville, Melbourne, and Key West, Florida; Northwest Arkansas, Guam; Dubuque, Iowa; Columbia and Joplin, MO; Latrobe, Pennsylvania; Lewisburg, West Virginia; Bloomington, Illinois; Appleton, Wisconsin; Medford, Oregon; St Croix, Virgin Islands; Harlingen, Laredo and Brownsville, Texas; Grand Junction and Eagle (Vail), Colorado; Redding, California; San Luis Obispo, California; Alexandria, Louisiana, Hyannis, Massachusetts; Elko, Nevada; and others. The bottom line - contract towers handled over 200,000 air carrier operations in CY 2002 and over 10 million enplaned passengers. Total number of operations at contract towers in CY 2002 was over 16 million.

Moreover, of the 100 busiest towers in the country, 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 than 17 of the lowest-ranked (in terms of operations) 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers. Sixty (60) of the current FAA contract towers handed more air traffic than three of the lowest-ranked (in terms of operations) of the 71 FAA-staffed VFR towers.

MYTH: Contract controllers do not report operational errors/deviations and contract towers do not have the same security standards as FAA-staffed towers.

FACT: FAA contract towers report operational errors/deviations (OEDs) in the exact same way as FAA-staffed towers. Contract towers follow the same decertification/recertification procedures as FAA-staffed towers. There is positively no data to support the allegation that contract controllers underreport OEDs any less that FAA controllers or that contractors practice retaliation against controllers that report operational errors/deviations. In fact, contractors have strict policies and impose severe penalties on any controller that fails to report OEDs. Regarding physical security of the towers, FAA, in coordination with TSA, applies the same security standards and oversight contract towers as the FAA-staffed VFR towers.

MYTH: NATCA claims that the 69 VFR towers at issue, if contracted out, would cost local communities substantial amounts of money to operate because they would become part of the cost-sharing program.

FACT: The cost-sharing program is only for those towers with very low activity levels. All of the FAA-staffed VFR towers would be included in the fully funded program at no cost to local communities because their benefit-cost ratios are well above the threshold mark for the cost-sharing program.

MYTH: Controllers in contract towers would be unable to join an organized labor group.

FACT: There is nothing to prohibit controllers at FAA contract towers from joining a union. In fact, of the current 219 FAA contract towers, controllers at approximately 35 percent of the towers belong to either NATCA or PATCO.

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