The bill will help remove unnecessary staffing barriers and allow our regional control towers across Washington state to attract the most experienced controllers
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), along with Senators Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), introduced the Continuity for Operators with Necessary Training Required for ATC Contract Towers (CONTRACT) Act of 2019. Today, there are 256 air traffic control facilities participating in the FAA’s Federal Contract Tower Program, including 7 in Washington state. These contract towers are an important part of the nation’s air traffic control system—serving communities in Eastern Washington and across Washington state through a proven public-private partnership that increases safety and improves air traffic control services, while lowering the cost to the federal government.
“Contract air traffic control towers play a critical role in ensuring safe air travel in Washington state and across our country,” Senator Murray said. “That’s why it’s so important to make sure our towers are staffed with the most qualified individuals to help keep our skies safe, and why I’m proud to join Senators Inhofe and Moran in introducing this commonsense bill to help remove unnecessary staffing barriers and allow our air traffic control towers in Spokane and across Washington state to attract the most experienced controllers.”
Contract towers play a central role in managing the safety and efficiency of our nation's complex airspace, supporting general aviation safety, the efficiency of large commercial airports, disaster relief and emergency medical operations, law enforcement and agriculture activities and businesses throughout the United States. In addition, many contract tower airports are located near or adjacent to military bases and manage a substantial number of military-related and national security operations, directly supporting the readiness and training of military units.
However, federal contract towers face a unique hurdle to hiring trained and well-qualified retired FAA controllers. Because FAA air traffic controllers are one of several federal employee groups whose retirement is mandated at 56 years of age, retired FAA controllers are penalized financially for continuing to work as controllers at federal contract towers. These experienced retired FAA employees should have the opportunity to use their skills at a federal contract tower, and this legislation would eliminate that financial penalty.
Under current law, FAA air traffic controllers must retire by age 56. Because this is earlier than the normal retirement age, controllers are included as a "special group" under the Federal Employees' Retirement System (FERS) and contribute an additional 0.5 percent of their annual salary into a special retirement annuity account. In return, they receive a FERS annuity payment during the mandatory retirement period between 56 and the social security minimum age of 62. The retired controller's special annuity payment is incrementally reduced if they earn more than the social security earnings limit of $17,640 (2019 tax year) annually. This annuity offset penalty results in many retired FAA controllers making the decision not work as federal contract tower air traffic controllers.
The CONTRACT Act has received strong support from stakeholders. The U.S. Contract Tower Association (USCTA), the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) sent a letter of support which can be viewed here.
Full bill text can be viewed HERE.