FAA’s Contract Tower Program


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FAA’s Contract Tower Program

Shane Nolan

FAA provides air traffic control services through a system of facilities, including air traffic control towers (towers). Towers are categorized as Level I through Level V, with Level I towers having the lowest number of operations (take-offs or landings). In 1982, FAA began a pilot program to contract for air traffic control services for five Level I towers that were closed as a result of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981.  

The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization or PATCO was a United States trade union which operated from 1968 until its decertification in 1981 following a strike which was broken by the Reagan Administration. The 1981 strike and defeat of PATCO has been called "one of the most important events in late twentieth century U.S. labor history. 

FAA’s Contract Tower Program grew to 27 towers by 1993. In 1994, Congress provided funding for a multi-year program to convert FAA-operated Level I towers to contract operation. Later that year, FAA’s Contract Tower Program Office awarded four contracts to three contractors. The program was further expanded by including towers at communities that never had an FAA-operated tower. As of 2010, 250 airports there are contract towers.

In March 1998, a United States District Court voided FAA’s decision to privatize FAA-operated Level I towers. In the lawsuit, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association challenged FAA’s privatization program as unlawful in that FAA failed to comply with Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76.

The circular requires agencies to evaluate their functions to determine whether the functions are inherently governmental or commercial. Since FAA failed to perform the required analysis, the Court remanded the case to FAA for that purpose. Based upon that decision, additional Level I towers scheduled for conversion have been put on hold pending the Court’s further review of FAA’s required decision making process.

Contract tower controllers meet FAA’s qualification requirements. Federal regulations require that anyone working as a controller hold an FAA issued Control Tower Operator certificate. Further, controllers must hold an FAA issued facility rating, which is an endorsement that the individual has demonstrated the competence, qualifications, and skills required to control air traffic at the tower to which they are assigned.


Contract tower controllers receive required training. Training requirements for contract controllers and FAA controllers are the same. The appropriate level of staffing for air traffic control facilities has long been controversial. Although FAA has staffing standards for estimating the current and future need for controllers, FAA has acknowledged these standards are limited in making precise estimates of staffing requirements for individual facilities.

In response to a Congressional directed study, the Transportation Research Board published a report in 1997 entitled “Air Traffic Control Facilities, Improving Methods to Determine Staffing Requirements.”

The report concluded that FAA staffing standards do not provide accurate predictions of staffing requirements at individual facilities, and that the current standards cannot be modified to provide stand-alone estimates of individual facility staffing requirements.

Since staffing standards could not be relied upon, FAA requested that contractors prepare detailed staffing plans showing the number of controllers and the work schedule for each contract tower in their contract proposal. FAA reviewed and approved the staffing plans and incorporated them into the contracts.

A 1997 FAA review of a contractor’s payroll records for 3 fiscal years found contract towers were not staffed in accordance with contractual staffing plans for 35 of 36 contract towers. Overall, FAA concluded the contractor was overpaid about $2.4 million for air traffic control services not provided, and FAA has requested the contractor to comply with contract staffing plans. However, as of March 1998, FAA had not taken action to recover the overpayment.

Quality of Service Between FAA Operated Towers and Contract Towers are Comparable. There is little difference in the quality of service at Level I towers, whether they were operated by FAA or by contractors. Airport operators and other users of contract towers indicated overall satisfaction with the service provided by contract tower controllers.
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