Federal Contract Tower Battle #N begins & the supporters are well prepared

FAA Federal Contract Tower FCT Program
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FAA Federal Contract Tower (FCT) Program

$159,000,000 Requested Under 2018 Appropriations Bill

Nine of the Washington Aviation Alphabet groups all signed a letter to the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, other House Members, and 4 Senators. Their joint request is that the 2018 Appropriations Bill include “funds appropriated under this heading, not less than $159,000,000 shall be for the fully funded and cost-share towers in the contract tower program.” This program has been funded for the last eight years, but oddly, a bill — supported by the controllers’ union, NATCA, and by most Members from rural communities — was opposed by the Obama Administration every year.

The March 9, 2017 letter was signed by

  1. Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association;
  1. Spencer Dickerson, executive director of the U.S. Contract Tower Association [the primary advocate for contact towers and a subsidiary of the powerhouse airport lobbying association] AAAE;
  1. Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association;
  1. Mark Baker, president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association;
  1. Martin H. Hiller, president and CEO of the National Air Transportation Association;
  1. Kevin M. Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International;
  1. Greg Principato, president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials;
  1. Peter F. Dumont, president of the Air Traffic Control Association; and
  1. Stephen A. Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association.

Since NATCA represents 92 of the towers in the FAA Federal Contract Tower (FCT) program, it is fair to assume that the union supports funding of the salaries of its Member.

The notable exception to the list of aviation associations’ signature is A4A. THEIR NON-SUPPORT OF THE FCT ADDS SOME PROOF THAT THE PROPOSED CORPORATIZED/PRIVATIZED ATO WOULD BE RUN PRIMARILY FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE SCHEDULED AIRLINES AND TO THE EXCLUSION OF GA. Thus, A4A’s silence contributes to the GA’s concerns [no longer paranoia] about the A4A structured ATO governed by “stakeholders”.

One of the benefits of the FCT is the funding of these airports actually contributes to lessening the burden of GA and Regional Airline flights at the major hubs dominated by the airlines. Closing these towers may cause business aircraft to be based at the bigger, congested airfields. The Regionals’ ability to bring passengers from these airports to hubs would be finished.

The joint letter cites a number of policy arguments in support of the funding:

  • The FAA Contract Tower Program has provided cost-effective and essential air traffic safety services for over three decades.
  • 253 smaller airports in 46 states participate in the program.
  • these towers handle approximately 28 percent of all air traffic control tower (ATCT) aircraft operations in the U.S.
    • But only account for about 14 percent of FAA’s overall budget allotted to ATCT tower operations.
  • All are FAA-certified air traffic controllers who meet the identical training and operating standards as FAA-employed controllers.
    • The vast majority of federal contract controllers are former FAA controllers or veterans with prior military air traffic control experience.
  • FAA controls and oversees all aspects of the Contract Tower Program, including operating procedures, staffing plans, certification and medical tests of contract controllers, security and facility evaluations.
    • Moreover, federal contract towers operate together with FAA-staffed facilities throughout the country as part of a unified national air traffic control system.
  • As a result of this 35-year government/industry partnership, the FAA Contract Tower Program:

(1) enhances aviation safety at airports that otherwise would not have a tower;

(2) provides annual cost savings to FAA and taxpayers of approximately $200 million;

(3) helps airports with retaining and developing commercial air service and general aviation;

(4) provides significant support for military readiness/training and national security operations (47 percent of all military operations at civilian airports in the U.S. occur at FAA contract towers),

(5) promotes economic development and creates jobs in local communities;

(6) connects smaller airports and rural communities with the national air transportation system, and

(7) consistently receives high marks for customer service from aviation users and pilots.

The bottom line is that, absent this highly successful partnership, many local communities and smaller airports would not receive the significant safety benefits of ATC services.


congress budget sequestrationThe letter does not track a significant bit of history, which will be particularly compelling to the Trump Administration—the attack of these towers by the Obama Administration in 2013 and its bipartisan defeat. In response to Congress’ Budget Sequestration and contrary to his Congressional testimony, the Administrator initiated a review of the Contract Towers with a goal of a disproportionate cut (he had testified that the percentage costs would be uniformly applied across all accounts) of these federally funded facilities. The standards for judging the towers for closure were not announced initially and when eventually the “tests” were disclosed they were viewed as highly subjective.

Several airport owners filed appeals against the FAA action in US courts and criticisms were lodged that the proposed terminations of towers violated internal agency safety policies. The planned action was found wanting because the “criteria” lacked decisional merit. Critics complained that the FAA analyses understated both the local economic impact and did not adequately assess the increase of risk of flights without manned towers. AOPA and a number of tower sponsors sought review before a US Court of Appeals; petitioners’ counsels  held their prospects of a win as high. Eventually, Congress intervened and told the FAA to stop their efforts to cut out the FCT funding. It was embarrassing to the Administration on several levels.

The FCT also fits well into a Trump Transportation theme: a preference for Public Private Partnerships.  

The Trump Administration might well consider reviewing the Closure Criteria and might look to additional sources of funding. THIS COALITION HAS BOTH SUBSTANTIVE AND POLITICAL SUPPORT.


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