Contract towers equal in safety, less in cost

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The 250 air traffic control towers operated under contract to the FAA handle 28% of all operations, but cost only 14% of the budget, according to statements before an aviation subcommittee whose members expressed concerns about possible severe cuts in operations if the President’s threatened automatic budget sequester goes into effect in January.

Under the program, which has been in effect for 30 years, air traffic control towers at many smaller airports are operated under contract to private operators under supervision of the FAA. Most workers at these facilities are former FAA or military controllers. The savings result primarily from the difference in staffing levels. Many contract towers are staffed by a single controller on duty.

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, told members of the House subcommittee that safety at the contract tower airports is at least as good as at other facilities. Although limited data available shows safety might be even better, there is not sufficient information available to make a positive statement, he added.

A major project being worked on by the FAA is adapting air traffic control operations to the coming NextGen era. David Grizzle, FAA’s chief operating officer of the air traffic division, said the current controller’s handbook is 50 years old and is being revamped to take into consideration all the changes NextGen will bring.

The President’s threatened budget sequester is considered by many Republican members of Congress as a threat to force acceptance of his tax hike for the so-called wealthy, but some members of the subcommittee commented the FAA should be ready with a plan if the agency is forced to operate with a limited budget. Rumors are that FAA funding for the control program would be cut by $1.5 million. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.) said such a “meat-ax” approach to budgets would call for planning, which should be ready if the budget cuts do come.


Charles Spence is General Aviation News’ Washington, D.C., correspondent.


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