NATCA Offers Recommendations to Improve FCT
Friday, July 20, 2012

On Wednesday, NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert affirmed the organization’s support for parts of the Federal Contract Tower (FCT) Program, but also discussed NATCA’s concerns before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee.

Gilbert explained that NATCA supports the cost-share component of the FCT Program as well as its allowance for building a new tower where one does not already exist. However, NATCA does not support the expansion of the program to existing FAA towers by converting or transferring current towers.

Gilbert said there is a dangerous lack of FAA oversight at many of these towers and that NATCA is concerned the FCT Program is pushing the outer limit of safety with bare bones staffing and inadequate support for essential equipment.

“NATCA represents air traffic controllers at 63 contract towers, and we are proud of the stellar work they do,” said Gilbert. “We offer recommendations for improvement because contract towers need to provide a better working environment for the controllers who staff them.”

NATCA has made five recommendations for contract tower improvement, including that contract towers should be held to the same staffing standards as FAA towers, and that contract towers should model the FAA’s safety culture in allowing controllers to report incidents without fear of punitive retaliation.

In response to a question from Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., about whether the past move of FAA towers to Federal Contract towers has proven unsafe, Gilbert said:

“It hasn’t proven to be unsafe, but we have a concern about the margin of safety being stretched to accommodate the bottom line versus safety first. Somebody’s got to make money in the contract tower program and that is our concern because the way they are able to do that is through bare bones staffing, the equipment issues that we’ve raised and also, in a lot of cases, the hours of operations.”

Also testifying at the hearing were Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer David Grizzle and Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel. A large part of discussion at the hearing concerned the safety culture at Federal Contract Towers in comparison to the safety culture at FAA towers. Grizzle and Scovel agreed that increased reporting at contract towers would be beneficial. They also agreed that it would be appropriate to incorporate a requirement to implement the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), or a similar program, into the next contract for the FCT Program. NATCA made a similar recommendation, one of five, in its written testimony that contract towers should model the FAA’s safety culture that allows controllers to report incidents without fear of punitive retaliation.

NATCA’s five recommendations included the following:

1. Staffing: Contract towers should be held to the same staffing standards as FAA towers.
2. Equipment: All contract towers should be required to meet the minimum equipment list standards comparable to FAA towers.
3. Equipment Maintenance: There should be a streamlined process for determining responsibility for maintenance of equipment at contract towers in order to avoid dangerous delays and chronically faulty equipment.
4. Safety: Contract towers should model the FAA’s safety culture that allows controllers to report incidents without fear of punitive retaliation.
5. Training: Contract towers should be required to provide more comprehensive training to all contract tower controllers, including adequate tools and resources.

Other highlights from Gilbert’s testimony:

- “There is a fundamental difference between an FAA tower and a contract tower. The FAA model was built on the premise of necessary redundancy to prioritize safety above all, whereas a contract tower has incentive to prioritize the bottom line. NATCA is not criticizing the fact that profit margins are a factor, but we must keep this reality in mind. In addition to the different motivations, there exists a stark difference between a contract tower and a FAA tower’s support systems, including equipment and facility maintenance and staffing.”

-“It is NATCA’s position that there is a fundamental flaw in comparing contract towers to FAA towers in terms of safety as defined by operational errors. The flaw in any comparison derives from the fact that errors are unevenly reported – the FAA has a true safety culture, where controllers and employees are encouraged to report all safety issues, including errors, while contract towers are dictated by a punitive culture that discourages controllers and their supervisors from reporting errors.”

-“NATCA understands that neither the FAA nor Congress is currently discussing expansion of the Federal Contract Tower program. Again, for the record, NATCA is opposed to expanding the contract tower program. Contract towers have their place, but under the current system they push the responsible limit of the margin of safety with short staffing, unreliable equipment, and a lack of technical support for the equipment. As a result of understaffing, controllers are required to tend to administrative duties while on position, as well as the responsibility for on-the-spot maintenance of any equipment malfunctions. These distractions mean that contract towers are approaching the outer limit of the margin of safety.”

To read Gilbert’s full testimony, please click HERE. The video of the full hearing is located HERE.