55 Senators tell FAA to find a solution for Federal Contract Towers; a modified PFC might work?

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The FAA attracts an inordinate share of battles with Congress over specific issues. The belowarticle is about a letter from 55 Senators (including Sen. Hagan of NC) to Administrator Huerta reminding him of their continued support for Federal Contract Towers and suggesting that establishing a long term strategy with the users would be wise.

The quintessential FAA-Congress conflict is the on-going war over FCTs, which has waged for years. The controversy is so pointed that the Administration/DoT/FAA tried to use Sequestration as an excuse for closing many of the FCTs. That skirmish ended badly in court and on the Hill (one of the only, if not the only, major rollback of Sequestration was Congress’ swift restoration of those funds).

Deputy Administrator Whitaker speaking to the US Control Tower Association on June 24-25 intimated that the FAA is considering cutting dollars for these facilities by saying “[i]t’s hard to get around the 800 pound gorilla that’s in the room” referring to the agency’s need to whack these payments in light of the limited dollars. He used the term “right-sizing” and pointed to a low activity tower working group. That veiled threat resulted in a bipartisan letter sent July 31, 2014 (see above link).

The DoT Inspector General has repeatedly determined that FCTs are superior both in safety performance and cost production. Those case studies provide a strong basis for continuing this program which is now 30 years old, The Administration/DoT/FAA counters that the low activity at these airfields does not support even the efficient contract employees. Their management/policy preference is to use the dollars elsewhere. Even if the Administration is correct in its assessment, Congress sets those priorities under the Constitution.

This most recent Senatorial intervention asks the FAA to try to find a win/win solution, seeking support from the stakeholders. The letter recited many of the positive attributes mentioned in the IG report. The not-too-subtle hint was that the FAA should find a way to continue support of the FCT on a long term basis.

Most FCTs do not have commercial flights; so it is not likely that these airfields are collecting PFCs. That legislative authorization permits “local taxes” collected from passengers to be utilized by the airport for approved capital projects. These assessments are added to the ticket price much to the dismay of the airlines, but the tax payers here would not be Part 121 people, but might encompass the local users.

Businesses at these airports, as represented by their associations (NBAA, etc.), believe in the value of the FCTs and have announced their support of the 55 Senators’ letter. Would they support the assessment of a charge like PFCs to retain the towers at their airports? Perhaps every dollar collected by such a local tax could be collected and then matched by federal funds from the AIP treasury? A 50% match would recognize the local value and the national interest.

The difficult issue is how to assess the cost shares among corporate hangar tenants, commercial operations of FBOs, the work of maintenance organizations, the flights of training schools, general aviation aircraft, airport vendors of all varieties, and other users of these airports. Clearly, for visceral reasons, any charge which resembles a user fee (on a per flight basis) would not be well received immediately (is it possible that on a micro scale, such a take-off/ landing charge would be acceptable; some GA airports already make such assessments. ???) Maybe it would be acceptable to add a tax to fuel sold at the airport (the GA/BA’s preferred method for allocating tasks)? For organizations with local sales, some percentage of those revenues would be an appropriate measure of contribution.

The 55 Senators’ letter suggested that the FAA work with stakeholders to design some acceptable source of funds for the FCTs. The 50/50 local/national contribution balancing would recognize the obdurate positions of both sides. The users may acknowledge that some portion of the FCT cost should be absorbed by the local aviation concerns; as a policy matter that is not a greater sacrifice of principle than was conceded in the creation of PFCs. It is an area about which the general and business users have shown great sensitivity, but in that debate the GA/BA segment have stated that the collection of fuel taxes is acceptable. Perhaps the same concession can be applied as to FCTs.

What is the clear message from the 55 Senators is that a majority of that body wants the FAA to seek a solution; maybe a modified PFC concept would create the parameters of a win/win answer?

Other ideas? The debate needs to begin.

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1 Comment on "55 Senators tell FAA to find a solution for Federal Contract Towers; a modified PFC might work?"

  1. Jennifer Keenan | August 20, 2014 at 10:49 am | Reply

    Does this mean that if the FAA wants to whack contract towers that the FAA will no longer be in control of air space in the US? Where is the argument? Someone has to regulate air space? We can’t send it to China?!

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