An Overview of the FAA Contract Tower Program

By Colleen Turner
On Wednesday July 16, 2003, Duane Howard, San Carlos Airport Air Traffic Manager, delivered a presentation at the San Carlos Airport Pilots Association (SCAPA) general membership meeting. During his presentation, I learned that San Carlos Airport is part of the FAA Contract Tower Program (FCT) and that Duane works for a company called Serco Management Services Inc., not the FAA. After hearing Duane speak, I decided to do a little research about the FCT Program. The FCT Program has been in existence since 1982. Its objective is to reduce costs to the Federal Government by contracting out the operation of low activity visual flight rules airport traffic control towers while assuring that an efficient network of control towers is maintained to provide safe and effective service to users of the National Airspace System (NAS).

The FAA evaluates FCTs in the same manner as FAA facilities and ensures that the integrity of the NAS is safeguarded. Contract controllers follow appropriate Federal Aviation Regulations and FAA directives. The FAA also certifies the contract controllers. The majority of the contract controller workforce was trained either by the FAA or the military and has a minimum of seven years of air traffic control experience.

As of July 1, 2003, a total of 218 airports were participating in the program, of which 19 (listed below) are located in California:

  • Chico
  • Fullerton
  • Hawthorne
  • Mather (Sacramento)
  • Modesto
  • Oxnard
  • Palmdale
  • Redding Municipal
  • Riverside
  • Sacramento Executive
  • Salinas Municipal
  • San Carlos
  • Brown Field (San Diego)
  • San Luis Obispo
  • Santa Maria
  • South Lake Tahoe
  • Victorville
  • Whiteman (Los Angeles)
  • William J. Fox (Lancaster)

The FCT Program is controversial. Some contend that its expansion will lead to privatization of the air traffic control (ATC) system and jeopardize safety. Others believe that the FCT Program protects the management and operating flexibility of the FAA to efficiently manage the ATC system within extremely tight budget constraints.

After much debate, House and Senate conferees concluded work on the FAA Reauthorization Bill on July 28, 2003. By the time they adjourned, the Bill protected the 218 towers currently in the FCT Program and allowed 69 VFR towers to apply to the FCT Program. The Bill also prohibited the Secretary of Transportation from privatizing any air traffic separation and control functions until October 1, 2007, except existing contract towers, any newly built contract towers, or certain other towers. However, the Bill must still go to the full House and Senate for final passage. So, as Yogi Berra once opined, it ain?t over till it?s over.

Colleen Turner is an Airport Grant Consultant with Ford, Turner & Associates and a private, instrument-rated pilot who has been flying for 15 years. You can email comments to:

Taken from the Sept October 2003 Cal Pilots Newsletter