Contract Tower Program
Continues to Save Taxpayers Money & Enhance Aviation Safety
July 18, 2012
A Congressional hearing on July 18, 2012, highlighted the benefits to
the taxpayers of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Contract
Tower program, which allows the FAA to contract with the private sector
to provide cost-effective air traffic control services at airports where
these services would otherwise be cost prohibitive.
The Subcommittee on Aviation, chaired by U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI),
held a hearing on July 18, 2012, as the Department of Transportation
Inspector General (DOT IG) continues its most recent audit of the
Contract Tower Program. The DOT IG’s previous audit in 2003 demonstrated
the cost-effectiveness of the program.
“The Contract Tower Program is a key component of our nation’s aviation
system and provides vital air traffic services to communities,
businesses, and travelers,” said Chairman Petri. “After almost three
decades, this program remains highly popular with its users. Without the
program, many communities would not be able to afford these critical
“The safety and efficiency of the Contract Tower Program has been
validated numerous times by the Inspector General, the FAA, and the
National Transportation Safety Board,” Petri stated. Regarding the
latest information from the DOT IG, Petri continued, “The IG determined
that contract towers had a lower number and rate of reported safety
incidents than similar FAA towers. The IG also found that the contract
towers provided air traffic services to low-activity airports at lower
costs than the FAA could otherwise provide. The IG determined that the
average contract tower costs roughly $1.5 million less to operate than a
comparable FAA tower – due largely to lower staffing and salary levels.
“We are talking about towers at low activity airports, but they are also
airports with mixed use and other operational conditions that make it
essential they have a tower to ensure safety,” said Petri.
The Contract Tower Program has been in existence for almost 30 years.
Currently, 250 airports in over 45 states participate in the program.
Contract towers handle approximately 28 percent of all air traffic
control tower aircraft operations in the United States but account for
just 14 percent of FAA’s overall tower operations budget.
Calvin Scovel, the Inspector General of the Department of
Transportation, discussed the DOT IG’s most recent findings. “Contract
towers continue to operate at lower costs than comparable FAA towers,”
Scovel said. “Our comparison of costs at our sample of 30 contract
towers and 30 FAA towers with similar air traffic densities found that
the average operations costs in fiscal year 2010 were about $537,000 for
a contract tower and about $2.025 million for an FAA tower—a difference
of $1.488 million, or 277 percent.” This cost difference between an
FAA-staffed tower and a contract tower is even greater now than when the
DOT IG last reviewed the program in 2003.
“The difference in cost is primarily due to two factors,” Scovel
continued. “First, contract towers are staffed at lower levels than the
comparable FAA towers. The 30 contract towers in our sample had an
average of 6 air traffic personnel at the facility, while the sample of
30 comparable FAA towers had an average of 16 air traffic personnel.
Second, contract tower controllers’ salaries, which are based on
Department of Labor wage rates, are lower than the salaries paid to FAA
controllers. For example, based on current Department of Labor rates, an
air traffic controller at the Albert Whitted Tower near Tampa, FL, would
receive base pay of about $56,000 per year, whereas an FAA-employed air
traffic controller in Sarasota, FL, an area with a similar cost of
living, would receive base pay ranging from about $63,000 to $85,000 per
year, depending on experience.”
Of the 250 current contract towers, 136 were previously staffed by the
FAA, according to the testimony of Walter Strong, Administrator of Max
Westheimer Airport in Norman, OK. “Based on anticipated cost information
from the DOT IG, if FAA were still staffing those 136 towers, the
additional annual costs to taxpayers, based on fiscal year 2010 figures,
would be approximately $200 million, which is $50 million more than the
current budget to operate all 250 current contract towers across the
entire country,” Strong said.
Contract towers are manned by highly experienced and highly trained
professional controllers, 99 percent of whom are former military or FAA
controllers with an average 20 years of experience. The FAA retains
safety oversight of the contract towers and the controllers who staff
them. All contract controllers are certified by the FAA, contract
facilities are monitored on a regular basis by the agency, and staffing
plans are approved by the FAA. Contract controllers are subject to the
same rules, medical exam requirements, operational procedures and
training as FAA controllers.
addressing the safety benefits of the Contract Tower Program, Melissa
Rudinger of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association stated,
“Establishment of an FAA Contract Control Tower at a General Aviation
airport enhances the safety of flight for all aircraft operating at the
airport and in the surrounding airspace.
“Federal contract towers operate together with FAA staffed facilities
throughout the country as part of a unified national air traffic control
system,” said Rudinger. “Without this federal program that sets safety
and training standards, certifies operations and monitors all aspects of
contract tower facilities, many of these towers would be forced to close
– facilities that are critical to the safety of many local communities.”
Scovel urged the FAA to enhance oversight of the Contact Tower Program
to ensure the continued safety. “While the Contract Tower Program
continues to provide cost-efficient air traffic services that are
supported by users, there are opportunities for FAA to improve its
oversight and strengthen program controls,” Scovel said. “These
opportunities include implementing a voluntary safety incident reporting
program at contract towers, implementing policies that require contract
towers to receive regular safety reviews, and improving agency oversight
over the contractual aspects of the program.”