Users satisfied with contract towers

November 28, 2012

The FAA’s contract tower program continues to provide safe, cost-effective air traffic services to general aviation and a wide range of other users, according to a government program audit.

The 30-year-old program has enhanced safety for pilots and communities where program airports are located, while operating at cost levels “significantly less” than those of comparable FAA control towers, said the review, conducted by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General.

AOPA welcomed the findings as supportive of the association’s call for full fiscal 2013 funding of the contract control tower program.

There are currently 250 contract control towers operating in 46 states and four U.S. territories, but since 2011, the program has been eyed for cuts. The $146 million program—which provides service at 89 airports exclusively used by general aviation—also represents one of the FAA’s most successful public-private partnerships, AOPA said.

The newly released audit was requested last year by the House Appropriations Committee program to update four reviews performed from 1998 to 2003, focusing on various aspects of the program. The new effort compared 30 randomly selected contract control towers with 30 similar FAA towers for costs and safety metrics, and sampled user satisfaction.

The audit concluded that the program “has successfully contributed to FAA’s goal of ensuring the safety and cost-effectiveness of the air traffic control system.”

On average, a contract control tower costs $1.5 million less to operate than a similar FAA tower, mostly because of lower staffing and salaries, it said. The contract towers also had fewer “operational deficiencies” such as “improper radio communications by controllers.”

The report emphasized user satisfaction with service quality at contract control towers, but also identified a need for the FAA to “enhance how it collects and uses safety data on contract towers so that they receive the appropriate level of oversight,” and the need to manage contract details more closely.

To accomplish the management improvements, the audit recommended that the FAA institute procedures to validate invoices and time cards submitted by tower contractors as meetings contract requirements; modify contracts to encourage voluntary reporting of safety incidents; and develop oversight policies that provide for regular assessment of contract towers “as prescribed by Congress.”

The audit confirmed continued user satisfaction with the program through random sampling that included “pilots, flight instructors, airport officials, fixed-base operators, as well as representatives from airport and general aviation associations.”

“In several instances, pilots were surprised to learn that towers they frequently interacted with were actually contract towers, and described the services provided by similar FAA and contract towers as ‘seamless,’” the report said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.