Contract Towers Safer than FAA's?

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When the government audits itself—say the GAO or an internal agency OIG—the results can be impressively self-critical or glaringly myopic. Unfortunately, with no independent data, you never know which you're getting.

I thought of that last week when reading the DOT's internal audit that—surprise—showed that contract towers are both cheaper and safer than FAA-staffed towers. While the cheaper part seems inarguable, the safer part—or more accurately, fewer safety-related issues--strikes me as questionable. Call me skeptical. But what I really question is the DOT OIG's claim that service and complaint resolution between FAA facilities and contract facilities is comparable. The OIG's report mentions this in passing, but it doesn't provide meaningful data on how the findings were determined.

And even for the cost accounting, the OIG concedes that when it did its previous report on the efficacy of control towers some 10 years ago, it concluded that it couldn't tell if the FAA was being billed for services not provided. Even the latest survey is flawed because the FAA doesn't have enough direct oversight to verify that hours billed by the contractors are legitimate. Indeed, the OIG report revealed that the FAA was unaware that in at least two towers, controllers were job sharing—splitting one position and sharing the pay on a pro-rata basis. There's nothing wrong with that, in my view, but the FAA ought to be aware of it because if they don't know that, what else don't they know? The OIG also conceded that FAA towers have voluntary safety reporting programs, while contractors don't. How might that skew the results?

As for service level and complaint resolution, my experience is two-fold: fielding reader queries and my personal interaction with contract towers. We get a smattering of complaints or questions from readers about, if not poor ATC service, questionable procedures. When I follow up on these, they seem invariably connected to contract towers, not FAA facilities. I'll concede that this is anecdotal, but the pattern is noticeable. I'd like to see OIG publish hard data on it. Maybe I'm off base.

What isn't anecdotal is my personal incidents with towers. I wrote about this one earlier this year. The nutshell summary is that the Denton, Texas tower gave us a directive that would have caused us to violate FAR 91.119's minimum altitude requirements and probably wasn't safe to begin with, on second consideration. Thinking this would be an educable moment for both the facility and me—plus our readers—I duly filed an FOIA request to get the tapes. The contract tower acknowledged my letter, bumped the request up the FAA line, the agency got back to me and the wheels turned. A month later, I got a letter from the contract tower saying they had no record of the event in question ever occurring. So much for complaint resolution.

The second recent incident occurred with the contract tower at Fort Myers, Florida. I was flying with Steve Gustafson in the backseat of the Collings Foundation's P-51. On a long final, we were treated to a controller's just obnoxious tongue lashing of a pilot having trouble finding the right taxiways. It bordered on abuse. When we got out of the airplane, we were both silent, but when I mentioned to Steve what we had heard, he turned out to be as pissed about it as I was. On the theory that uncorrected poor service begets more of the same, I made a note to fetch the tapes, but never got around to it.

The issue here may be that despite all the blather about private enterprise doing things better, the FAA contractor relationship has a fundamental flaw in it. Just because there are private companies involved, doesn't mean there's competitive pressure to provide better or even good service. We learned this when Lockheed Martin took over Flight Service. We heard a blizzard of initial complaints, but when we followed up on these with Lockmart, they often replied simply that they were meeting the terms of the contract. Very few offers to look into the details. In fairness, I think Lockheed Martin has improved their service and their handling of service complaints.

But the OIG's recent audit suggests that the FAA may lack the resources to even know what kind of job the contract facilities are doing. And with budget cuts looming, that's likely to get worse. I don't mean to damn all contract towers because I'm sure some of them—maybe most—do first-rate work. But in my view, there are enough that don't to cause me to raise a skeptical eye at the OIG's findings.

Comments (27)

As a retired controller I do not find them to be unsafe, but oversight is an issue, staffing is an issue and training. The contractors try, but remember the primary goal is profit, not a bad thing but must be balanced. You should also ask if the FAA cost of managing and inspecting and in some cases equipment mantainance is included in the DOT audit, probably not. I learned a long time ago, you never show all you cards!

Posted by: calvin smith | December 6, 2012 5:55 AM    Report this comment

" record of the event in question ever occurring..." One of these days someone will get that response and the pilot will then produce an audio or video recording of the event recorded by the pilot.

It's not all that difficult to do. I used to record everything as a student for review, and I also recorded some cross country flights. I may go back to it.

Posted by: Reid Sayre | December 6, 2012 7:48 AM    Report this comment

We have a couple of contract towers in the area that I fly in & out of fairly regularly and have never noticed any problems with professionalism, safety or efficiency of handling, in fact except for tending to have a slightly more personal (call it friend-to-friend) tone in the communications they are indistinguishable from FAA operations. And probably this is just because they are lower-paced operations.

I can say that I have noticed in the past when a new contract tower opens up, for the first few months you do get a slightly different…I don’t know, call it “vibe”….in the procedures, likely the result of having a large number of newbees settling in all at once. That’s something to be expected, I would say.

Posted by: John Wilson | December 6, 2012 8:22 AM    Report this comment

Although I do see private contractors doing a better job than government when it comes to customers and money savings, I too question the stats... First there is the fact that private contractors are mostly retired (or former PACO) and therefore trained the minute they get on the job and therefore know how to make it work and "corner cutting" good or bad. I have seen recent studies to forget the basics of apples to apples. A looming decision in my field has the belief changing to 100%, part 135 operations will make it safer than part 91. The rational is the amount of accidents are less during 135 than 91, the problem, 2/3 of our operations are part 91 v 135, you think maybe...

Posted by: Chuck West | December 6, 2012 8:25 AM    Report this comment

A couple of years ago, I issued a FOI for a copy of a contract tower recording and was told that they do not provide them because they are a private company. I appealed to the FAA in Washington and got the same answer! What a convient way to cover their tracks.
When the Pilots Bill Of Rights was passed, I hear that we can now get tapes.

Posted by: David Faile | December 6, 2012 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you are barking up the wrong tree. Our multi-jet 135 operation is based at an extremely busy contract tower field with an on-field airport restaurant. The place is an absolute zoo on weekends, with weekend warriors and wanna-be warbird pilots mixing it up in the pattern. Our tower handles it all with total professionalism. Nor have I seen anything like what you describe at any of the many other contract tower fields I've visited throughout the US. You are correct to note your anecdotal observations do not constitute a rigorous, scientific sample.

Instead, what is most concerning to me is the influx of young, inexperienced controllers at FAA facilities. It's no secret the FAA has a major problem with aging controllers retiring (or eligible to retire) in huge numbers. We are in the midst of a major hiring push at the FAA, yet they are woefully short of qualified trainers and the new controllers being hired are just not as good as the experienced controllers they are replacing. The FAA claims there is "no decrease in safety" and that new controllers are closely monitored, but being in the system every day and hearing these new controllers at work is evidence to the contrary. The spike in ATC operational errors underscores this view.

Leave the contract towers alone. Worry about the next midair that's going to happen as a result of hurriedly trained and checked-out young controllers at the FAA.

Posted by: ERIC BASILE | December 6, 2012 9:36 AM    Report this comment

- Most of these non-Fed are Class D facilities where some controllers/towers seem to be continuously angry. KFMY is notorious. Bartow too. These are non-Fed towers. Others are quite pilot friendly,e.g. Pete/Clearwater and Albert Whitted. All however are professionally competent. I just go with the flow.
-Controllers occasionally make mistakes. That's why pilots are given the ultimate decision-making responsibility. We need to know our stuff and, and when necessary, say "unable" or "unable for reasons of safety", fly the plane to our destination and deal with the merits of our behavior on the ground via telephone or in person with the tower staff when both parties have time to discuss the event.
-Good for the FAA for trying to evaluate the relative competence and costs. And good for Paul for reporting it fairly.

Posted by: Dan Vandermeer | December 6, 2012 9:40 AM    Report this comment

I've had a different experience with two contract towers in the Memphis, TN area. Olive Branch Mississippi, OLV, has had a contract tower for about 5 or 6 years. My grass field is under their Class D surface area.
The tower has radar repeaters from Memphis Approach. They routinely monitor traffic up to 20 miles east of OLV and call traffic to me. After landing one day they radioed me on the ground but they were unable hear my reply. I put the airplane up and was driving home when my cell phone rang. It was the OLV Tower asking me if I was alright. They saw smoke on the downwind to our grass field but could not see me and were concerned about my wellbeing.

The tower at Millington, TN. NQA is also always very helpful and courteous. Both of these towers regularly meet with area pilots for an exchange of ideas and to pass along helpful information.

Posted by: Gilbert Pierce | December 6, 2012 9:54 AM    Report this comment

Reposted for Calvin Smith

As a retired controller I do not find them to be unsafe, but oversight is an issue, staffing is an issue and training. The contractors try, but remember the primary goal is profit, not a bad thing but must be balanced. You should also ask if the FAA cost of managing and inspecting and in some cases equipment mantainance is included in the DOT audit, probably not. I learned a long time ago, you never show all you cards!

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 6, 2012 9:58 AM    Report this comment

Private ATC is mostly from retired FAA ATCs. The level of expertise and efficiency from contracted services is better than that of FAA developmental or OJT controllers even while under supervision by senior Controllers. It is like comparing ATPs to student pilots, however, when evaluating safety, full operational error reporting by contract towers is questionable. The FAA appears to be ignoring this, justified by cost cutting demands, perhaps misinforming encouraging the public to accept the dumping of the majority of the control towers similarly to the way FAA FSS went whether well prepared operational plans are made before the transition or whether the users like it or not. I doubt that the LAX, ORD, FJK towers and the like will be manned by other than FAA personnel but the others will probably be under contract soon or be shut down as traffic counts are down by approximately 35% across the system. Another effect of the decline of the aviation industry in the US.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 6, 2012 10:01 AM    Report this comment

It's real simple. If you're the only controller in the facility, which is the norm with contract towers, how can you report an error and be relieved from the position? The contract controllers are underpaid and overworked. They do the best they can with the constraints they're given.

Posted by: David Slosson | December 6, 2012 10:08 AM    Report this comment

Reid, I used to record in the cockpit routinely when I edited IFR. Used it for articles on radio communication. It's much easier now, with cheap digital recorders or even apps.

It paid off one day going into Farmingdale with an instrument student in a Saratoga. Slightly busy day, controller working two positions. We landed and cleared the runway and the controller said he hadn't cleared us to land. Oh, but he had. I had it on the tape.

As this discussion continued on an open frequency, I mentioned that I had it on tape and he said something like, "no, we don't need to pull the tape." I explained that I already had the tape and would call the tower later. I never thought there was any enforcement threat there, but just a heads up.

When I called the ATM later that day, I got halfway through explaining why I was calling and he laughed and said, "oh, you're the guys who we cleared to land and then said we didn't." He had pulled his own tapes and knew the score.

In some days, it was a different world back then--15 years ago.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 6, 2012 10:09 AM    Report this comment

Everyone argues that contract towers are cheaper. I would like to see the contract specs. Very few contracts with the government actually save the taxpayer money. While the contollers are paid less, the contract overall usually costs more than the cost of govenment employees. Usually if there is cost savings if results from the contract allowing the contractor to operate differently than the government employees can. Also, remember, the initial price of a government contract often is a lot different that the actual cost was when the contract is up. I really doubt that a close examination of cost would show much saving with contract towers.

Posted by: Unknown | December 6, 2012 10:35 AM    Report this comment

Could it be that contract towers are "safer" because they tend to be placed in low-stress environments? Did the FAA study account for this? For example, I don't think you find contract towers in the NY tracon naturally they aren't going to be as overloaded as those.

Posted by: A Richie | December 6, 2012 10:52 AM    Report this comment

As a retired FAA, Contract & DOD (Civilian) Controller I can confirm that at at least some contract towers the reporting requirements by the FAA are not done and even falsified. The tower I worked in presented the FAA initialed records showing I had received the required "Tape Talks" and "Over the Shoulder" yet I never received the required training or initialed those forms nor had of my coworkers.

In one year I personally observed three serious errors by controllers and none was ever reported, we were discouraged from reporting anything that would put the program in a bad light.

We did weather observations which required certification by the National Weather Service through a test proctored by an FAA manager yet our test was given to our contract manager who proceeded to administer the test to all six of us, including the manager, open book

These observations were reported by three of us to the annual FAA inspector but there was never any follow-up.

We were supposed to have two people working in the tower from seven AM to five PM yet on more than on occasion I found myself alone in the tower during those hours with heavy traffic.

The FAA is bloated but this is safer then short staffed towers.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | December 6, 2012 11:12 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | December 6, 2012 11:16 AM    Report this comment

I've flown into both contract and FAA towered airports. What I generally find is that a lot (maybe even a majority) of contract towers are in boondock locations that really don't need a tower based on their current workload. Many of the non-towered airports I've flown into across the country have just as much traffic as many of the towered ones not far away. Several non-towered airports even have commercial traffic that manages to operate quite safely from the fields. It seems to me that if the FAA budget needs slashed, dropping at least half of the non-FAA facilities would be a good start.

Posted by: John Townsley | December 6, 2012 11:30 AM    Report this comment

How does one determine if a tower is contract or FAA. It sounds like a lot of you know. It must be just by local knowledge? The only one I personally knew about was Kapalua (JHM) because the tower was staffed by Hawaiian Airlines employees and I knew one of them.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | December 7, 2012 10:12 AM    Report this comment

Jim, there's this thing out there, new fangled, I think it's called Google or something like that. You can find all kinds of stuff.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 7, 2012 2:25 PM    Report this comment

Hey Jim Lo Bue,

Kapalua does not have a tower, the Hawaiin employees may be manning the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CATF) but the airport is very restricted and is open only to part 121 and 135 operations with prior approval.

The following towers are contracted in Hawaii, Molokai (MKK / PHMK) (Where I worked), Kona (KOA / PHKO) and Lihue Airport (LIH / PHLI).


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | December 7, 2012 3:02 PM    Report this comment

Add Kalaeloa airport on Ohau (JFR / PHJR) to my list, this was run by the military when I left in 2002.


Posted by: Ray Laughinghouse | December 7, 2012 3:12 PM    Report this comment

I've used about half the roughly 30 contract towered fields on the west coast, and in a couple of western but not coastal states, and another 15 or so FAA-staff towered fields in the same region. Most of them I've flown into several times, a few many dozen times. These are mostly Delta towers, but also a couple of Charlie towers and some of them under Bravo airspace.
I've found the culture at the individual tower to be more of an influence than whether or not the FAA runs it. If one controller recognizes my experimental type and treats me professionally and appropriately, it's likely that all the controllers at that facility will do so, regardless of how busy the tower is or where it is located. Likewise, if one controller repeatedly calls my Glasair a Cessna, or generally handles me poorly, it's likely that experience will prevail across all the controllers at that tower.
After a decade of flying in and out of some of them, I don't find much change in a given tower over time, but some do gradually change. Sometimes they get better, and sometimes not.
My opinion is that the culture has more to do with the tower management than anything else. Just like in most businesses and government endeavors, management has more to do with the success of all parts of the operation than anything else. Strong, customer oriented management that supports and enforces training and accountability at all levels results in operations that we appreciate, no matter who the staff works for.

Posted by: Richard Persons | December 7, 2012 6:44 PM    Report this comment

My above comment being said and having used up a character allotment, I have to add that at least in Northern California where I'm based, the contract towers are generally not as busy as the FAA staffed towers. There are no contract towers under or adjacent to the NorCal Bravo airspace, where the Delta and Charlie towers are busiest. Which may contribute to the finding that the contract towers are "safer." If the contract controllers have more time to deal with each aircraft, which definitely is the case in NorCal, it stands to reason the contract towers will have fewer issues.

Posted by: Richard Persons | December 7, 2012 7:03 PM    Report this comment

"My opinion is that the culture has more to do with the tower management than anything else."

Having know a few tower managers personally, Richard, I think this is correct. The ATM sets the work climate and controllers tend to adapt to it. A customer/user oriented facility--whether contract or FAA--seems to be consistently that way, in my experience. Three come to mind: Bridgeport and Danbury Connecticut, at least a few years ago, and Lakeland here in Florida.

I've never explored this, but having an ATM or controllers on staff who are pilots would seem to help.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 8, 2012 2:06 PM    Report this comment

I do not feel that this is an apples to apples comparison.....contract towers operate at airports that handle far less traffic than the FAA towers at high density traffic airports.....You could stick me in the control tower at KBOW and I would be just as safe as other contract towers...Not because I know what I am doing...but because its a bit of a ghost town over there....Stick me in KMIA and its a different story.....

Posted by: rob haschat | December 8, 2012 2:42 PM    Report this comment

JULY 18, 2012 Update on the Safety and Cost Aspects of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Contract Tower Program
Statement of The Honorable Calvin L. Scovel III

Contract towers continue to provide safe air traffic services and are strongly supported by users. Our ongoing work has found that contract towers had a lower number and rate of reported safety incidents3 than similar FAA towers and those Agency safety evaluations found fewer deficiencies with contract towers. Users did not raise any safety concerns regarding the services provided by contract towers and believe the services they receive from contract towers are comparable to those from similar FAA towers. Contract towers also continue to provide cost-efficient air traffic control services, with the average contract tower costing roughly $1.5 million less to operate annually than a comparable FAA tower—due largely to lower staffing and salary levels. However, FAA can take certain actions to improve its oversight of the program. These actions include implementing a voluntary safety incident reporting program at contract towers, implementing processes to regularly evaluate contract towers as required by Congress and reviewing annual labor hours worked to determine if the contractors provide the level of service called for in the contract.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 12, 2012 7:05 PM    Report this comment

The above Contract Tower Program Update compared apples to apples. I read FAA and USCTA reports from 1998 to present and it appears safety and cost data is on the Contract Tower's side. They say they are cheaper and safer. The FAA has a good argument for out sourcing.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | December 12, 2012 7:17 PM    Report this comment

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