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DOT Report Shows More Information Needed in Determining Fate of Federal Contract Tower Program - (4/14/2000)

WASHINGTON–In spite of showing little understanding of the complexities of air traffic control, using misdirected logic and comparing apples to oranges, the Department of Transportation inspector general’s report results in a reasonable conclusion: further study.

The report asks the FAA to rethink its methodology and cost savings estimates but does not make recommendations on whether the Federal Contract Tower Program should continue. In this unproven program, the nation’s air traffic control towers are being systematically sold off to private companies that seek profits rather than safety for the flying public. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association strongly opposes any expansion of the contracting of the air traffic control system.

"We are pleased to see DOT recognizes the classification and other problems with the program and welcome further study," said NATCA President Mike McNally. "We still fervently object to further contracting out of FAA air traffic control facilities but are confident a study conducted under the inspector general’s new recommendations will expose this program’s pitfalls. The country’s air traffic controllers are not willing to trade the world’s safest and most efficient system for unproven and sub-standard replica.

"Currently, 187 low traffic facilities are in the Federal Contract Tower Program. Most of these towers conduct fewer than 35 arrivals and departures each hour, which arguably saves the FAA $250,000 per facility annually. However any savings would be eliminated if contract towers were held to the same standards as FAA facilities. If the staffing and training requirements for contract facilities are lower, the margin of safety would be reduced as well.

The idea increased cost savings will be realized by alleviating staffing shortages at other FAA run facilities shows the report’s lack of understanding of the complexities of the system. The report suggests controllers could be arbitrarily transferred from a low traffic facility to one of the busiest towers in the nation for a one-time moving fee. Just as in most jobs, controllers are promoted through the ranks to higher traffic facilities and must be trained and certified at each step. While NATCA supports increased staffing to accommodate higher traffic levels, it cannot be done in this manner.

"Any cost savings provided by this program are at the expense of the employees and the flying public’s safety," said McNally. "A controller at a low traffic facility run by the FAA would train for at least 12 to 18 months before he or she reaches journeyman status. Under the contract system, a new hire only trains two to four weeks for the same job. Contractors do not provide adequate training to their employees, which becomes increasingly more dangerous as higher level facilities are contracted out.

"The air traffic control system operates through teams of highly skilled and well-trained controllers linked together with sophisticated communication and radar equipment. A smooth, safe and efficient system depends on the seamless transition of aircraft from facility to facility. FAA controllers share a common language, background and management structure to ensure the best service possible. This system is compromised when private companies, which do not adhere to the same high standards as the FAA, are permitted to make profit the primary goal.


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