Hernado County Adds Contract Control Tower

Author: 
Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 
September
2011

With private contractors operating towers at nearly 250 U.S. airports, air traffic control isn't a strictly FAA function as the traveling public often assumes. Last year, contract controllers manned fully 45% of U.S. towers and managed more than one quarter of all controlled domestic operations. Such towers cost the FAA a fraction of what it spends to operate fully federal towers with similar traffic volumes.

 




factsfigures

Project: Control Tower

Location: Hernando County (FL) Airport

Maximum Construction Cost: $2.5 million

Construction Manager at Risk: Peter Brown Construction

Construction Funding: 80% state, 20% airport reserves

Prime Engineer: Clough Harbour & Associates

Site Selection Consultant: AJT Engineering

Controller Services: Robinson Aviation

Est. Airport Maintenance Costs: $13,000 - $15,000/year

Benefits: Enhanced safety; positive impact on aircraft insurance rates & safety management systems; lower operating costs vs. federally operated tower

 

Hernando County Airport in Brooksville, FL, will soon join the growing cadre of airports with contract towers. In July, the general aviation facility just 30 miles north of Tampa International was preparing to break ground for a 74-foot tower that's expected to be complete by February 2012. The airport had also just received a guaranteed maximum price of $2.5 million for the project from Peter Brown Construction, the construction manager at risk it contracted in March.

Airport manager Don Silvernell is eager to add air traffic control service at the two-runway field. "It will be a big improvement for the airport," Silvernell emphasizes. "Occasionally, corporate clients cringe when they hear that we don't (currently) have a tower; and we know insurance companies give breaks to aircraft based at controlled airports."

The new tower will also eliminate a negative factor on pilot checklists for three airport tenants with safety management systems.

Not surprisingly, the field's corporate clients unanimously support the tower project. Conversely, Silvernell estimates about 40% of the airport's private operators have concerns - mostly regarding cost and the possibility of increased taxi times. Ninety signed a petition officially opposing the tower.

"As a private pilot, I understand their reservations," he says. "I've flown from Washington to Florida without ever talking to a controller, and it was great. But I listened in a lot."

While Silvernell appreciates the unfettered hop-in-your-aircraft-and-go nature of uncontrolled operations, he considers adding a tower a significant safety enhancement for Hernando County Airport. Its traffic levels are beginning to require one, he explains.

With 180 aircraft based at the field, Silvernell estimates annual operations at 70,000 to 75,000. "We'll see how close we are once the tower is done," he muses.

Other statistics demonstrate the airport's growth more definitively: Since 2007, fuel sales have more than doubled to 600,000 gallons, and the number of flight plans filed has increased 10% to 12% every year during the same period.

The diverse nature of the airfield's traffic - everything from ultralights and small homebuilts to large business jets and Blackhawk military helicopters - was another factor supporting the addition of air traffic control.

After Silvernell presented the case for a tower, six out of seven aviation authority board members and four out of five county commissioners supported the project.





Watch it Grow

When Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, FL, built a new tower last year, its existing tower provided an ideal vantage point to chronicle construction of the new facilities.

Visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_YKHHNRaS0 to view a time-lapsed re-cap of the process.

Years in the Making

The airport authority raised the prospect of building a tower shortly after Silvernell was hired in 2003. In 2005, it contracted David Byers, senior development professional for Quadrex Aviation and Ph.D. of aviation science. "Dr. Dave," as he's known in the industry, performed a cost/benefit analysis to help determine whether the airport would qualify for the Federal Contract Tower Program and associated ongoing operating funds. Although the FAA's initial answer was "no," Byers trusted his preliminary research indicating otherwise. Erring on the side of caution, however, Silvernell did not proceed with hiring engineers for the project. "We needed confirmation from the FAA before we did anything else," he explains.

When Byers reviewed the data, he discovered that the FAA hadn't included the airport's military traffic in its calculations. Without military flights, the airport's benefit/cost ratio was .95 - just below the FAA's 1.0 threshold for a contract tower. When its regular military traffic was included, however, the airport qualified easily with a "B/C ratio" of 1.81.

If an airport's B/C ratio drops below the 1.0 threshold during subsequent recalculations, it can continue to participate via a cost-sharing provision that was added in 1999. An airport with a 0.8 benefit/cost ratio, for instance, can remain federally funded, but must pay for 80% of the tower's operating costs. Last year, 16 airports shared costs to operate their contract towers.

Hernando County's experience applying to the program was not unusual, relates Byers. "There are often vagaries in the data, and sometimes information is missing or out-of-date," he explains. "Fortunately, the FAA has been very reasonable and receptive about accepting counter proposals. The burden of proof is on the airport, but the FAA is open to listening."

With official qualification for the contract program in hand, the airport opted for a construction manager at risk process to keep its county purchasing department comfortable. It also decided against using the FAA's in-house site selection process, opting instead for an accepted alternative siting process. Choosing its own consultant shaved three to four months off the schedule and saved roughly $180,000, estimates Sivernell. Working as a subcontractor under prime engineer Clough Harbour & Associates, AJT Engineering completed site selection in about seven months for roughly $65,000.

Delivering water and sewer service to the site cost about $300,000. "It was the logical site, but not the easiest," explains Silvernell. The recent infrastructure improvements open opportunities for property development in a previously inaccessible location, adds Byers.

Unexpected funds from the Florida Department of Transportation will cover 80% of the project cost, and the airport will pay for the remaining 20% out of its capital reserves. "We went in with no state funding, but when another airport couldn't come up with matching funds for their project, the money fell to us," he explains. "I hate to see another airport not get their project; but we'll certainly put the funds to good use. As an enterprise field, we put money away every year for projects like this."

The airport, in fact, recently finished $300,000 of joint repairs on its secondary 5,000-foot runway and $650,000 in roadwork at its industrial park.

With water and electric services in place for the new tower, footing and piling work is next on the schedule. Vertical construction is expected to begin in September. "It should go pretty quickly from there," Silvernell anticipates. "They'll set the concrete panels, build the cab and lift it into place in about six weeks."

The tower, which will be staffed by Robinson Aviation, is expected to operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days per week.

Comparison Shopping

Cost savings is one of the driving forces behind the Federal Contract Tower Program. FAA towers generally cost about three times more to operate than contract towers, says Spencer Dickerson, senior executive vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and executive director of its affiliate, the U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA).

"Last year, contract towers handled 27% of all U.S. tower operations, but accounted for just 9% of the FAA's overall budget allotted to air traffic control tower operations," Dickerson elaborates.

The last major study on the subject, released by the inspector general in 2003, reported the average annual operating cost of an FAA tower at $1.74 million vs. $365,600 for a contract tower. Results of an updated study are expected this fall. In the meantime, Byers' estimates paint a similar picture: $1 million to $1.5 million for an FAA-run tower vs. about $450,000 per contract tower.

Some of the cost variance is attributed to different personnel policies: Unlike contract control companies, the FAA can't hire part-time controllers, deploy controllers at multiple towers or flex staffing levels for seasonal changes in traffic.

"The Department of Transportation has looked at the program for more than two decades and always comes to the same conclusion: Contract towers have great safety records and they're much less expensive to operate," summarizes Dickerson. "It's really hard to find any faults with the program. Consequently, it receives good bi-partisan support on the Hill and within the FAA."

Silvernell has no reservations about contract controllers operating the tower being built at Hernando County Airport. "When you look at the raw data - not what the air traffic controllers' union presents - you find the safety record at contract towers is as good, and often better, than federal towers," he explains.




Federal Contract Tower Program

2010 Highlights

Participating Towers: 246

Total Operations: 4.24 million

Contract Operators: Midwest ATC Service; Robinson Aviation; Serco Mgt. Services

Busiest Tower: Phoenix/Williams Gateway Airport 177,974 operations

States with Towers: 46

U.S. Territories with Towers: Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

Airports Sharing Operating Costs: 16

Willie Card Service Award Winner: Ormond Beach (FL) Municipal Airport

 

Notably, none of the sleeping controller incidents that captured national headlines earlier this spring occurred at contract towers.

Dickerson considers contract towers effective hybrids: They're not federal operations, but they aren't "privatized" either. Although the controllers are employed by private companies, the FAA decides which companies can perform the work. Three companies - Midwest ATC, Robinson Aviation and Serco Management Services - currently hold contracts. In addition, the Department of Transportation establishes salary levels and benefits for contracted controllers, and they're required to train and operate according to FAA rules and procedures. In addition to certifying private controllers to the same standards as its own controllers, the FAA approves staffing plans for contract towers.

"If it's not the most successful industry/government partnership, it's at least in the top two or three," says Dickerson.

In early August, AAAE/USCTA and several other aviation organizations officially urged the House Appropriations Committee to support the Federal Contract Tower Program with overall funding of $121.8 million plus $10 million for the cost-sharing portion during fiscal year 2012.

Evolving Over Time

The Federal Contract Tower Program emerged as an outgrowth of the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). After President Reagan fired thousands of unionized controllers and banned the FAA from rehiring them, controllers at smaller airports and those not participating in the strike were hired to fill the empty slots at large airports. "The process took longer than everyone thought," recalls Byers, "and a few airports (including Lakeland Municipal and Greenbriar Valley Regional) got legislation enacted that allowed them to hire their own controllers."

A handful of individual contracts were issued to reopen towers at small airports caught in the ripple effect of the strike, and a program evolved that eventually encompassed 27 airports in 1993 and 150 the following year. As it was originally conceived, the program is currently limited to low-activity (Level 1) visual flight rules airports.

Some consider the evolution of the Federal Contract Tower Program a historic point in U.S. labor relations. During its development, elements of the program were challenged in the courts. Decades later, the topic still inspires controversy.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), a union formed after PATCO was de-certified after the strike, opposes expansion of the Federal Contract Tower Program, citing concerns about safety, traffic delays and possible user fees.

Others consider contract towers an effective way to provide control service at low-activity airports despite current budget constraints. "The FAA simply doesn't have money to build new towers these days," explains Byers. "The contract tower program allows local communities that need service to build their own towers and have contract controllers operate them. Before, it often took a legislative earmark to get a new tower; now municipalities can initiate the process themselves."

Byers estimated that more than 60 new locations have joined the contract tower program this way. "It provides service at airports that wouldn't otherwise have it," he concludes. Only three airports have elected to close their towers during the past several years of the program - Elko Regional in Nevada, Valdosta Regional in Georgia and Lake Tahoe Airport in California.

Of the current 246 airports with contract towers, Dickerson estimates 100 would not maintain control service without the program. "That's a lot of added aviation safety, and it's provided at a fraction of the cost," he notes.

Some speculate that expansion of the contract tower program has been thwarted by NATCA suggesting the program will lead to full privatization of the air traffic control system. In its role representing contract tower airports, USCTA works to counteract charges that the FAA awards controller service contracts on a low-bid basis and assuage the associated safety concerns.

Four new towers are expected to be added to the program this year and next.

Subcategory: 
Operations

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