November 19, 2019
Today, U.S. Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced S. 2898, 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. These contract towers are an important part of our national air traffic control system—serving communities through a proven public-private partnership that increases safety and improves air traffic control services, while lowering the cost to the federal government.
Federal contract towers face a unique hurtle 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 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 without facing a financial penalty. This legislation would eliminate that penalty.
“I am proud to introduce the CONTRACT Act today to encourage trained and qualified FAA Controllers to work at a contract tower without worry they will lose their hard-earned money,” Inhofe said. “This legislation will ensure these important facilities, including the six contract towers in my state of Oklahoma, are staffed with the most qualified, trained individuals available.”
“I’m proud to support our aviation industry by introducing legislation to remove an unnecessary barrier in the hiring pipeline for contract towers,” said Moran. “This sensible legislation would support contract towers across the nation, including the eight located in Kansas, by removing a financial disincentive which is preventing highly-skilled, experienced controllers from working at federal contract towers upon their retirement at the FAA.”
“Contract air traffic control towers play a critical role in ensuring safe air travel in Washington state and across our country,” 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 Sens. Inhofe and Moran in introducing this commonsense bill that will help remove unnecessary staffing barriers and allow our air traffic control towers in Spokane and across Washington state to attract the most experienced controllers,” Murray said.
Full bill text can be viewed here.
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.
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.
This legislation would remove the disincentive for retired FAA air traffic controllers to work at federal contract towers. 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.
Inhofe has a long history supporting Contract Towers in Oklahoma, including his work earlier this year in an appropriations package to fully fund the Air Traffic Control Contract Tower Program.