Stephen Van Beek: Remote Air Traffic Control Towers: A Better Future for America’s Small Airports

In today’s aviation industry, advancements in air traffic control technologies and procedures promise to enhance safety and efficiently accommodate demand from commercial airlines and general aviation. Although having an air traffic control tower is not required for airline service in the U.S., a tower provides benefits of increased safety as well as assurance for the business community that the area served by the airport is credible and “on the map.”

Most small airports that have towers are served by contract towers, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and operated by various private companies, often using former military and FAA controllers. Studies by the U.S. DOT’s Office of the Inspector General found that contract towers provide equivalent service to FAA-operated towers at airports with comparable activity levels—but cost only 26% as much to operate. The FAA contracts with these firms, paying for the costs of air traffic controllers, with the private companies typically paying the balance of operating costs. Small airports qualify for a contract tower only if the FAA finds that the benefits exceed the costs (i.e., a benefit/cost ratio of at least 1.0).