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OIG: Contract air traffic control towers are cheaper and safer than FAA counterparts

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Air traffic control towers run by contractors appear cheaper and safer than comparable federally run towers, the Transportation Department office of inspector general says.

Federal Aviation Administration contractors run 250 towers nationwide at low-activity airports. For a report (.pdf) issued Nov. 5, DOT auditors compared a sample of 30 contract towers to 300 FAA-run towers with similar air traffic density. The FAA towers cost more than three times as much to operate, in part because they had more than twice the personnel.

But besides having more workers than the contract towers, the FAA towers also pay higher salaries. A contract controller would make $56,000 annually at a tower near Tampa, Fla., while an FAA controller an hour south in Sarasota would receive anywhere from $63,000 to $85,000, auditors say. The two areas have similar costs of living.

Contract towers' lower costs have apparently not come at the expense of safety. Auditors compared 240 contract towers and 92 similar FAA towers and found lower rates of safety incidents at the contract towers.

The FAA's Contract Tower and Weather Group selected FAA towers it considered comparable to contract towers for the sample. The contract towers had about one-fourth the rate of operational errors and half the rate of runway incursions.

Auditors also say support for contract towers is widespread among pilots, flight instructors, airport officials and others involved in aviation. Several pilots that auditors interviewed "were surprised to learn that towers they frequently interacted with were actually contract towers, and described the services provided by similar FAA and contract towers as 'seamless.'"

The report notes that the FAA recently initiated a new oversight system that could impact safety. In January, the agency transitioned to a risk-based safety oversight system, and no longer conducts its safety evaluations every 3 years for all FAA and contract towers. Instead, it now focuses its oversight on towers that it believes are at higher risk for safety issues.

Auditors caution that some low-risk towers could go years without safety evaluations, and that weak or incomplete data could cause the FAA to overlook towers that deserve attention.

For more:
- download the report, AV-2013-009

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