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December 11, 2019

Inhofe Praises Committee Passage of CONTRACT Act of 2019

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, submitted a statement for the record today ahead of the committee’s markup of the bill. The CONTRACT Act was reported favorably from the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation today. This legislation, sponsored by Sen. Inhofe, is cosponsored by 26 Members of the United States Senate, which can be viewed here.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for including my legislation, the Continuity for Operators with Necessary Training Required for ATC Contract Towers Act of 2019, (CONTRACT Act of 2019), on today’s committee mark up. This legislation would remove the disincentive for retired FAA air traffic controllers to work at federal contract towers. It is a common-sense approach to ensuring our nation continues to have enough air traffic controllers to meet the increasing staffing needs at air traffic facilities that manage the safety and efficiency of our nation's complex airspace.

Today, there are 256 air traffic control facilities participating in the FAA’s Federal Contract Tower Program. These federal contract towers have a real, positive impact on impact on general aviation safety, the efficiency of large commercial airports, disaster relief and emergency medical operations, law enforcement, 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.

Nationwide, federal contract towers handle approximately 28 percent of the nation's air traffic control tower operations, yet they account for only 14 percent of the FAA's total tower operations budget. Additionally, the average contract tower operates at one-third the cost of a federal control tower, though it is held to the same standard of excellence.

Six Oklahoma airports are home to federal contract towers: Ardmore Municipal (ADM); Enid Woodring Regional (WDG); Lawton Ft. Sill Regional (LAW); Stillwater Regional (SWO); Wiley Post (PWA); University of Oklahoma Westheimer (OUN) – whose tower won the 2016 Willie F. Card Contract Tower Service Award because its controllers distinguished themselves through hard work and dedication, maintaining the high standards of aviation safety while efficiently managing the air traffic of their airport.

Unfortunately, federal contract towers face a unique hurtle to hiring trained and well-qualified retired FAA controllers. Because current law requires FAA air traffic controllers to retire at an age that is earlier than the normal retirement age, FAA controllers are included as a special group under the Federal Employees' Retirement System (FERS). They are required to contribute a portion of their annual salary into a special retirement annuity account, which then provides those individuals an annuity payment during their mandatory retirement period between 57 and the social security minimum age of 61. A retired FAA controller faces a penalty deducted from their annuity payment if they work during this period. As such, this penalty results in many retired FAA controllers choosing not work as federal contract tower air traffic controllers. These experienced, retired FAA controllers should have the opportunity to use their skills at a federal contract tower without facing a financial penalty. The CONTRACT Act would allow a retired FAA controller who chooses to work as an air traffic controller at a federal contract tower to remain eligible to receive their annuity payment.

Air traffic controllers ensure that our nation’s airspace remains the safest in the world—I know because I talk directly to them every day I am piloting my plane in Oklahoma. I am proud to author this legislation that would prevent those retired FAA controllers who choose to continue to work as contract tower controllers from being penalized and would bring back to the air traffic controller workforce scores of retired FAA controllers who left the controller workforce rather than face this penalty.

I thank my colleagues for their support of this legislation, including Senator Moran, Senator Murray, and Chairman Wicker. I look forward to working with all my colleagues to enact this legislation into law.

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