Contract Towers

Contract Towers Chair of USCTA talks about the program, following a favorable government report By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director July 2000 MOSINEE, WI — James Hansford, A.A.E., knows contract towers. He's operated one...


FAA then went into the national contract in 1996 and started contracting a segment of the 160 or so Level 1 towers. When they did, a number of airports that had been sole-source opted to go to the national contract, and a number remained sole-source. We remain sole source because we have an interest in doing some things on our own that we wouldn't be able to do if we were a national contract, such as operating an ATIS and AWOS jointly so that we save money and make it simpler for pilots.

AB: As a sole-source contract tower, how does FAA assist in paying for the cost of your tower operations?

Hansford: FAA pays for operation of the tower in cost of the controllers; they do not pay for the operation of the tower, nor do they pay for contruction of the tower. They don't pay for the maintenance of the tower. They pay for the maintenance and operation of the towers that were previously FAA towers.

AB: Typically, who are the people manning these towers?

Hansford: We have two 1981 retirees; we have three ex-military controllers. Generally, the turnover from the military and some of the turnover from the FAA want to get back into air traffic control. They have met the demand so far.

AB: What are your thoughts about the Inspector General's rather favorable report on contract towers?

Hansford: I think it assures us of longevity, without a doubt. There's always that pall hanging over us that FAA will not have sufficient funding to keep all of the contract towers operational. I think the indication from the Inspector General's report is quite strong that, number one, contract towers work very well, and they work very economically. This report and other reports have very graphically shown that they improve safety at airports, that they are one of the least expensive and most functional safety enhancements you can provide at an airport. That's what I think we get out of it.

AB: What are some of the issues you still have related to the program?

Hansford: There's certainly the issue that a number of airports have, such as mine, where we maintain the tower and the equipment, and supply all of the equipment. There are a lot of the towers in the program that are maintained and supplied by the FAA. Do we want to get to the point of FAA maintaining and supplying our tower? Probably not, because we do it at a third the cost or less than the FAA can. I would like some help in doing that, but I don't want to get into the position of paying the astronomical fees that the FAA does for tower equipment and maintanance.

When we built that tower, FAA was adamant that we couldn't do it for less than $2 million. The equipment list that they gave us was $988,000. The folks from Washington told our Congressional delegation and our airport board that we simply couldn't do it for less than that. And we have a $701,000 tower that's been operating since 1991 one hundred percent of the time.

To equip the towers with off-the-shelf economical equipment, and provide for its maintenance locally, might save an additional $45 million — easily. And there's no reason not to.

AB: Is there a level at which we stop expanding the program?

Hansford: Whether or not we see the program move into Level 2 and Level 3 towers — well, they have air traffic services. USCTA's main interest is to make sure that communities and airports that have a need for air traffic services get the opportunity to provide them.

The more economical we can make it, the more areas of service we can provide. If we can save another $45 million, we can open a few more control towers and just make a larger portion of the country safer.

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