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ARTICLE: Contract Towers Continue to Provide Cost-Effective and Safe Air Traffic Services, But Improved Oversight of the Program is Needed


In a Congressionally requested study, the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation answered the questions asked, but did not attempt to ascertain the “why” to the important issue raised by its report. The Contract Tower Program, at issue in this study, is the historical consequence of the PATCO strike and really attributable to the policy geniuses of AAAE.

The strike caused a number of low level activity towers to be closed and once the service was terminated, OMB’s analysis was that they could not support a cost/benefit analysis. The airport executive association’s staff came up with the lower cost option of the contract tower.

Congress asked two questions of the OIG about the Contract Towers—how much and how well? The most recent answers from the Inspector General’s office were

  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…”

The obvious question those two conclusions raise is WHY? The FAA is said to operate one of the world’s safest and most efficient ATC systems. Then, how is it possible that outside contractors are able to produce equal to or better economics and numbers that suggest better safety performance? NATCA quickly avers that this difference is due to lower reporting of errors by the contract controllers, because the contract facilities control less busy, less complex operations, etc.

Added to the points made by NATCA is the fact that contract tower employees are drawn from the ranks of FAA retired controllers with many years of experience. Also it is important to note that contract tower operation is subject to FAA safety oversight. Given all of the above, there is no reason to think that contract towers would be less safe.

Those may be valid answers, but the OIG study was not designed to investigate the “WHY” to these more important public policy questions—is there something that the FAA can learn from the contract operations or do they just have an easier job?

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