The FAA was sharply criticized last year for multiple reports of its air traffic controllers sleeping on the job. Petri said Wednesday that private controllers handle about 28 percent of the aviation traffic in the United States.
Panelists at the Aviation subpanel hearing he chaired on Wednesday agreed with his assessment.
"Between 1998 and 2003, we completed four reviews of the Contract Tower Program," the author of the study, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel said in a written testimony. "Overall, we found little difference in the safety or quality of services provided by similar FAA and contract towers. Contract towers continue to provide safe air traffic services and are strongly supported by users."
FAA Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer David Grizzle said the agency was supportive because the agency is "always investigating ways to operate more cost-effectively by reviewing and adjusting, as necessary, staffing levels, operating hours, and deployment of system enhancements.
"We agree with Congress about the importance of the cost share program and are committed to working in an effective fashion with stakeholders to optimize how this program can contribute to our optimal management of the [national aerospace system]," Grizzle said.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association said, however, that the comparison between contract flight towers and FAA towers was not apples-to-apples.
“There is a fundamental difference between an FAA tower and a contract tower," NACTA Vice President Trish Gilbert told the committee. "The FAA model was built on the premise of redundancy to prioritize safety above all, whereas a contract tower has incentive to prioritize the bottom line."
Gilbert said the air traffic controllers association supported the Contract Tower Program, but she said it was important to keep in mind the distinctions.
"NATCA is not criticizing the fact that profit margins are a factor, but we must keep this reality in mind," she said of contracted flight towers. "In addition to the different motivations, there exists a stark difference between a contract tower and a FAA tower’s support systems, including equipment and facility maintenance and staffing.”
Petri said there was enough room in the national aviation system for both types of flight towers.
"We are talking about towers at low activity airports, but they are also airports with mixed use and other operational conditions that make it essential they have a tower to ensure safety,” he said.
Contract Tower Association Policy Board Chairman Walter Strong added that all contract controllers are "FAA-certified air traffic controllers who meet the [same] identical training and operation standards as FAA controllers.
"FAA controls and oversees all aspects of the contract tower program, including operating procedures, staffing plans, certification and medical tests of contract controllers, security and facility evaluations," Strong said.