April 28, 2020
Requested by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Its Subcommittee on Aviation
Contract Towers Are More Cost Effective Than Comparable FAA Towers and Have Similar Safety Records
What We Looked At
Established in 1982 at 5 low-activity control towers, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Contract Tower (FCT) Program currently consists of 254 contract towers in 46 states operated by 3 contractors and the Air National Guard. Managing about 28 percent of the Nation’s air traffic control operations, contract towers constitute an essential part of the National Airspace System (NAS). Our audit objective was to assess the FCT Program’s cost effectiveness and safety record. We statistically grouped towers based on characteristics that affect air traffic controller and tower workloads. Specifically, we gathered and examined hours of operations, numbers of takeoffs and landings, types of aircraft handled, and runway configurations. Based on these characteristics, we used two statistical methods to group 351 air traffic control towers, consisting of 248 contract towers and 103 lower level FAA towers. Our methods produced groups containing a mixture of comparable FAA and contract towers. We determined the towers within each group were similar to each other and then analyzed and directly compared their cost and safety data. We reviewed cost and safety data between fiscal years 2015 and 2018 for the universe of 351 towers.
What We Found
Between fiscal years 2015 and 2018, contract towers were more cost effective per aircraft handled than comparable FAA towers, and that the safety records of contract and comparable FAA towers were similar. On average, contract towers used at least 47.6 percent fewer resources—or incurred lower controller staffing costs—per aircraft handled per year even though comparable FAA towers handled more total flights. Furthermore, while contract towers had statistically fewer safety events per aircraft handled, we do not believe the difference between these numbers and those of FAA’s towers is meaningful because, among other reasons, the numbers of safety related events across the NAS were very low relative to the total number of flights.
We are making no recommendations.