For-profit control towers worry FAA safety experts

How comfortable would you feel flying in to an airport where the control tower was staffed by people working for lowest bidder? The Federal Aviation Administration isn’t sure it’s comfortable either and last February’s fatal crash at Melbourne International Airport may bring the issue to a head. At least 250 airports across the United States rely on air traffic controllers employed by private, for-profit companies. Melbourne is one of thoseĀ and the litany of errors surrounding that tragedy is enough to give both flyers and pilots pause.

Most control towers are staffed by highly-trained air traffic controllers employed by the federal government. It’s a tough job and they are well paid for the work. Private controllers are paid less, held to different standards – some say lower – and their employers make training and staffing decisions with profitability in mind. Contractor towers reported fewer safety incidents but the FAA thinks that may be because controllers don’t understand what poses a safety hazard. FAA towers have an average of 16 controllers on staff while private towers have six. Training by the FAA takes one to five years, while contractors certify their tower staff in as little as 30 days.

The Inspector General’s report on the Melbourne crash is instructive. That day, three controllers were supposed to be on duty; only two were at work. After the crash the controller who handled the two planes became distraught and couldn’t work, leaving just one person to coordinate all inbound and outbound traffic. In-service training was ad-hoc and not well tracked. A “conflict” alarm that sounds when planes get too close together may or may not have gone off; neither controller remembers hearing it and no one was sure if it was tested every day as federal law requires.

Private controllers have been around since 1982 when President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nationwide. In 1994, Congress expanded the program. Federal control tower staff are unionized and have extensive resources to call upon. The union has testified before Congress on what it sees as the inadequacy of the private providers. The final National Transportation Safety Board report on the Melbourne accident is due very soon. If it was caused by the factors identified by the I.G.’s report, Congress and the FAA may rethink their decision to outsource safety in the skies.

Source: Florida Today, “Contractor run air traffic towers raise questions in deadly Brevard crash,” Susanne Cervenka, Dec. 9, 2012