IG’s Comparative Analysis of Control Tower Productivity is long overdue!

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ARTICLE: Audit Initiated of the Productivity of FAA’s Air Traffic Control Towers

Air Traffic Control towers are difficult institutions to manage. Airline peak demand occurs for segments during an 8 hour shift creating gaps where the number of controllers exceeds the level of operations. Simple meteorological changes, like a wind shift, compel complex reconfiguration of the arrival/departure patterns. Major weather phenomena, particularly snow storms, create havoc. Equipment problems (computer glitches, failure of a navigational aid) really stress the ATC operations. Factors beyond the tower’s scope, like major delays at another tower or ARTCC, impact the flow of traffic in and/or out. Good management principles would necessitate some degree of overstaffing in order to have the flexibility to respond to one or more of these potential issues.

The Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee has requested the DoT Inspector General examine the productivity of ATCTs. The basis of Rep. Shuster’s question is reflected in the following:

Since 2000, the number of air traffic controllers has increased slightly while the number of air traffic operations has declined by 23 percent, leading to questions about controller productivity.”

That observation is sufficiently macro in its scope as to exclude that the complicating factors, mentioned in the opening paragraph, should not be involved in the IG’s analysis. Equally relevant is the ancillary point raised in response to a previous IG report in which it was asked to assess the operations of Contract Towers. There the Inspector General examined these facilities, which are NOT managed by the FAA, and made two critical observations:

  1. They “cost about $1.5 million less to operate than a comparable FAA tower, mainly due to lower staffing and salary levels” and
  2. “Contract towers had a lower number and rate of safety incidents compared to similar FAA towers…”

In responding to the request of Chairman Shuster, the IG will have to reference this prior study .

Of particular interest will be the IG’s response to its own statement of the study’s intent:

“Knowledge of which air traffic control facilities operate relatively more efficiently would help identify the factors necessary to achieve

greater productivity. Consequently, as a step towards determining the factors affecting air traffic control tower productivity, this audit

will assess the relative efficiency of air traffic control towers.”

An assessment, which compares how ATCTs achieve productivity, seems to be something which the ATO should have done for years. It will be most telling if the IG finds significant variation among these facilities. The management techniques which have been found to add to productivity will be positive findings, but why the FAA has not previously self-examined its own practices will remain a mystery.

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