Contract Towers Safer than FAA's?
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.