Chair of USCTA talks about the program, following a favorable government report
By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director
MOSINEE, WI — James Hansford, A.A.E., knows contract towers. He's operated one since 1992 at the Central Wisconsin Airport here. And, he serves as the current chairman of the U.S. Contract Tower Association, a sister of the American Association of Airport Executives. He sat down recently with AIRPORT BUSINESS to talk about the status of the program, and to discuss a recent Inspector General's report that endorsed the program as one that saves money, is safe, and should be a candidate for expansion.
Hansford, 56, has been at Central Wisconsin 18 years. As the name implies, his airport is centrally located in Wisconsin, a regional feeder to Milwaukee and Chicago to the south. He has been involved in lobbying and informational efforts on behalf of airports with contract towers — before the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and others.
Contract towers have been a hot topic of late. Two aircraft incidents earlier this year — at Van Nuys, CA, and Waukegan, IL — brought contract towers to the attention of the media and Washington. FAA, at press time, was nearing a decision on awarding new contracts for companies providing air traffic services to the program.
And, in April, the DOT Office of Inspector General released an Audit Report that, in essence, applauded the program and called for seriously considering expanding it. It also chided FAA for a Draft Study the agency performed which basically downplayed the benefits of the Contract Tower Program. It also questioned FAA's intent with its study, coming on the heels of an agreement with NATCA that guarantees minimum staffing (union) levels for FAA-operated towers.
Following is an edited transcript of our discussion with James Hansford ...
AIRPORT BUSINESS: Tell us about your history with the program.
Hansford: Back in 1981, when the controllers went on strike, we got into a situation where a number of airports lost air traffic services. At the time I was at Evansville (IN); our tower was closed for awhile. Even after it got operational, it was quite constrained. A lot of airports simply lost their service.
Then the folks in Kentucky and New Mexico put together enough political punch to get the FAA to actually contract out the services of their towers so that they could reopen. So, what they did in those days was, take a closed FAA tower facility, the FAA would contract with the airport, and the airport would either provide the controllers or select a subcontractor to provide controllers to reopen the tower, and the FAA would maintain the equipment and the tower facility.
Of course, the cost of those towers went down from fees paid by FAA to really minimal fees to operate it under the contract, and that was impressive to AAAE and a number of airport managers. So, we put a bit of pressure on our friends at FAA to try to expand the program. It became apparent that FAA on its own was not going to expand the program, so political pressure was put on by various airports that simply had a need for air traffic services; they couldn't continue to operate as they were. Individual towers were slowly but surely reopened under the contract program.
Then, there were several airports that said, we've never had a tower but we're active enough that we need a tower. We'll build a tower and we want to be in the contract tower program. Bellingham, WA; Central WI Airport; and others. So, through Congression-al intervention, those locations built the facilities, equipped the facilities, and then entered into a contract with the FAA to operate it.