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Contract control towers just as safe as FAA towers, study shows

November 27, 2012, 05:09 pm

According to a recent audit by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, air traffic control towers that are staffed by private contractors are cheaper, while at the same time provide the same level of safety, when compared to control towers that are staffed by the government.

The Office of Inspector General compared 30 contract towers to 30 towers run by the FAA with similar air traffic at the airports they are located. The audit showed that contract towers cost on average $537,000 a year to operate, significantly lower compared with $2 million for equally busy towers staffed by the Federal Aviation Administration. In addition, the report indicated that the contract towers had a far fewer safety incidents. Auditors indicated that the cost of the FAA towers are so much more expensive because they usually had more than twice the staff.

Contract towers must meet FAA requirements and are overseen by FAA managers. Contract towers make up the bulk of the towers across the nation, accounting for 251 of the total 374 towers in the United States. Although contract towers are restricted to airports with lower volume compared to government towers, they still handle 28 percent of all domestic airport operations.

Along with having more workers at the FAA control towers, the government also pays employees more when compared to contract towers. According to the auditors, a contract controller would make nearly $56,000 a year working a tower near Tampa, Florida, while an FAA air traffic controller just an hour south in Sarasota, Florida, would make between $63,000 and $85,000.

Not only is it more expensive to operate FAA control towers, auditors indicated that contract towers were safer because they had a "significantly lower number and rate of incidents," citing that 240 contract towers had 197 safety incidents, compared with 92 similar FAA towers that had 362 incidents. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents the FAA controllers, said the auditors are wrong in assuming the contract towers are safer because FAA controllers are under a non-punitive reporting system encouraging controllers to voluntarily report incidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board also recently listed general aviation on its 10 Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. The general aviation accident rate has averaged 6.8 per every 100,000 flight hours over the past 10 years and has stayed relatively flat over that time.

Pilots in the general aviation community should consider pilot insurance, no matter the rate or number of safety incidents by air traffic controllers. Insurance will ensure a family's financial future in the unlikely event of an emergency.

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