FAA: Customer Service Means Saying You’re Sorry

By Robert Mark on March 12th, 2009

FAA held a customer service seminar last week in Chicago. I always chuckle a bit when someone combines the FAA acronym with anything that even sounds like customer service. Sorry PT & DB. But then, today’s my birthday so I suppose most readers will indulge me a bit of curmudgeonly prose (and no, I won’t tell you how old I am other than explaining it’s a zero year).

Honestly, with only a few rare exceptions, I have found FAA folks to be good at what they do, both controllers and inspectors. However – you knew this was coming – I doubt I’d ever make the leap to call the services FAA provides as “good customer service.” They are simply two entirely different concepts, one involving the worker bees, the other involving management.

contract towerTo me, one of the dumbest decisions the agency ever made was contracting out small towers to private corporations. I know the agency supposedly saved money in the process, but the customer service aspect for users was lost in the translation.

Case in point

I was flying a Citation back to of one of my favorite airports in Chicago, Waukegan (UGN) a few years back on a Part 135 charter trip. Waukegan Tower is privately-run contract tower, although it is federally controlled, whatever that means to folks in airplanes. Midwest ATC runs UGN tower to be precise, the same folks helping the U.S. government rebuild ATC in some Middle East countries. Midwest also ran the now closed Chicago Meigs Field contract tower until Mayor Daley shut the place down a few years back.

My Citation trip took place about a year after WGN-Radio personality Bob Collins was killed in a midair collision while inbound to Waukegan. He was talking to  Waukegan controllers at the time of the crash, as was I. Having spent many years on the other side of the microphone, I try my best to form a picture of the airspace in my mind when I fly to make sure I don’t end up like Mr. Collins.

This day I canceled my IFR flight plan out over Lake Michigan and proceeded VFR to the airport from the southeast calling Waukegan Tower along the way. I heard a single-engine Cessna call inbound from the north about the same time. He was much closer to the airport. I slowed the airplane to about 160 knots just to play it safe since I knew it would be tough to see traffic in 6 miles of visibility. The tower cleared me to land first and I asked about the traffic. They told me he was clear. As I rolled out on final for Runway 23, I saw the Cessna headed right for me. We missed, but not by much.

I called the FAA FSDO at Chicago Dupage Airport since some of the other charter captains warned me that talking to the people at UGN tower would be a waste of time. That’s when I was told that although FAA funds the contract tower program, the agency has very little operational control over those facilities. This was a few years back, so I’m hoping the policy has changed.

UGN animation Now comes another deal at UGN, this one involving a friend of mine. A deal is controller lingo for running airplanes too close together. The tower cleared two aircraft for takeoff at the same time on intersecting runways. One single-engine Cessna was N405ES, and the other N408ES. Two aircraft with similar callsigns on the same frequency is an accident looking for a place to happen, trust me. You can watch the replay of the video and the animation put together by FAA’s Alaska Region. If this doesn’t scare the “x”rap out of you as either a controller or a pilot, I don’t know what will.

No doubt you can pick out who might have handled things differently on the frequency once you’ve listened a few times. Yes, even my pal in 405ES had some responsibility. Most of the responsibility rests with the tower controller unfortunately. She made a mistake.

The most interesting part of this process was that after the FAA folks interviewed my friend to gather facts, he never heard another word about the issue … ever. Not even to this day.

Where’s the Service?

Granted it’s pretty awkward to call someone and say “Opps. Sorry we almost killed you the other day. But we’re sorry.” At least that would have acknowledged the problem. That conversation never took place. It never came from FAA and it never came from Midwest ATC. That’s because the folks that run FAA, like the folks that run Midwest simply don’t think that way. But that kind of empathy for people is what makes for great customer service. It’s not too late Midwest and FAA. You have the phone numbers of the people involved. How about doing this because it’s the right thing to do or especially since UGN tower has had a few other deals I know of.

One more fact. Midwest ATC was the company that ran Meigs Tower when they had a midair collision in 1997. There was one controller on duty alone in the cab at the time. How much money did that save the agency? I wonder if they called anyone on that crash.


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18 Responses to “FAA: Customer Service Means Saying You’re Sorry”

  1. Dr. Dave Says:


    I’ve got to disagree with you on this one…FAA’s Contract Air Traffic Control Towers has to have been one of the BEST programs that could ever happen for small airports like UGN!

    Operational errors occur at both large & small airports and this one most likely resulted in corrective action for the controller responsible. Remember the LAX accident where the one aircraft landed on top of the other due to the controller forgetting that they had cleared the one A/C to taxi into position while clearing the other to land?

    For the two mid-airs (Meigs & UGN) , NTSB assigned probable cause as the pilots’ “failure to maintain clearance from the other airplane(s)” and not the result of controller error.

    On the other hand, remember the Quincy accident (Beech 1900 / King Air collision? Sad that there was no ATC facility at UIN that could have prevented the loss of life.

    Without the FCT program, airports like UGN would have no controlled airspace since the cost for FAA to operate ATC would not make much financial sense. And given the congested airspace around Chicago, I don’t think you’d want to go back to using Unicom for sequencing yourself.

    Disclosure: Over the past 20 years, I have worked with airports to start-up and maintain ATC towers under the FCT and serve as an ex-offcio member of the US Contract Tower Association Policy Board.

    Dr. Dave

  2. John Says:

    Happy Birthday!

    I never knew the FAA contracted towers out. That’s crazy…

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    Dr. Dave:

    The contract tower program has been successful? Measured how exactly? In the sense that there is ATC service at a place like UGN? That assumes you agree with the FAA notion that the ONLY options were to shut down those low-traffic FAA facilities completely or contract them out.

    That assumes a bit too much FAA Kool-Aide because I don’t believe those were the only options.

    And NTSB assigning blame to the pilots not looking out the window is a bit simplistic, a bit like saying the controller in Lexington was a contributing factor when he turned his back on an aircraft taking off.

    BTW, any regular controller will tell you that you NEVER turn your back on an aircraft once you’ve cleared them for takeoff because of exactly what did happen at LEX.

    But this story, my friend, was about the service aspect at contract towers and the fact that neither the FAA nor Midwest seems to care much about that.

    Sure some ATC service is better than none, but the system of contracting towers should be a heck of a lot more sophisticated at this point, don’t you think?

  4. Dr. Dave Says:

    Well, since you asked…

    The philosophy behind contracting ATC services is save federal money without having to close down low activity facilities. AND without compromising safety. The service is in providing a safe and efficient operating airspace environment at an affordable cost. FCT Towers can be operated for less than half the cost of a FAA facility The FCT average cost is around $450,000. Currently, there are 241 airports in the FCT program and another 3-5 sites are added every year. Since this program is funded through the FAA, obviously something must be working right!

    The justification for a contract tower is measured in the annual operating cost compared to the “benefit” provided (quantified by estimated lives and property saved by having someone looking out the window). Fun Fact: the FAA values a life at $5.8 million.

    Contract Tower controllers are certified to the same standard as FAA controllers. In fact, many are retired FAA. Tower Facilities have the same basic equipment. The UGN mid-air accident did highlight the need for a radar display to confirm pilot position reports – something the FAA had initially denied. Controllers are not allowed to use them for providing separation.

    I don’t know who you talked to, but almost unanimously, corporate, charter, and other users will tell you that FCT “service” (measured in keeping two aircraft from occupying the same airspace at the same time?) is as good as FAA employees provide.

    However, as long as humans are involved, flying will always be subject to human error. Until we take humans totally out of the equation (and we do have the technology), mistakes will continue to happen – sometimes with deadly consequences. It is fortunate that this incident did not end that way and we get a do-over to learn from it.

    Another note: in the UGN and Meigs midair and the LEX accident, the controllers inattention was cited as a contributing factor.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Dr. Dave:

    I knew I could count on you college profs to grab the data when you need it. I think everyone needs to see that, so thanks.

    If you measure success in terms of money, then yes, it is tough to argue when contractors cost less. The question I’m trying to raise is why does it cost less? Could the FAA have figured out a way to keep its own employees at low-traffic towers … yes.

    Would that have been easy … no, not at all. Are there former FAA guys at contract towers? Sure. But that doesn’t fix the problems inherent in private contractors training new controllers on a shoestring budget.

    Much like pilots, holding everyone to the same training standard looks great on paper. But if it doesn’t all come together when it counts on the job, the certification is not worth much. I happen to think that in the end, you get what you pay for.

    The fact that we are even talking about fatal accidents at three contract towers at all though is really my point Dr. Dave.

    I can find quite a few people who would say yes, better to have A tower at UGN rather than no tower at all.

    But if they were to compare the quality of the service, most would call it less than optimal. In fact, one user sent me a note after this ran this morning and said, “Use of the phrase “sub-standard” here would be a compliment.”

  6. Andrew Says:

    Just like when the FAA contracted out FSS to lockheed martin…

  7. Rick Says:

    I have plenty of contacts with FCT’s and while many of the personnel are former FAA or military controllers who know their stuff. Where I see shortcuts being taken in a FCT is with the schedule. Many times there is only one controller in the cab doing all of the cab functions.

    Oh and Dr Dave, if you review FAAOs 7110.65 and 7210.3, you will find instances where the non-approach control tower can use a CRTD for separation.

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  9. Dale Kettring Says:


    Despite what is in the .65 or the .3, the FAA has certified NO tower displays for radar separation.

    The issue goes back to display capabilities (i.e. resolution), and also the time to display.

  10. myview Says:

    N8ES is to blame as much as the controller. On the tape, I do not ever hear him reply.

    N5ES seems to have done a good job trying to make sure the tower knoew where he was.

  11. Addison Says:

    Dude – you’re sixty, right?

  12. Rob Mark Says:

    What are you CIA … MI5 or what? I keep telling people I’m 30 or so, but no one believes me.

    I am shocked … shocked that they don’t believe me.

  13. Keith Smith Says:

    quote: This day I canceled my IFR flight plan …proceeded VFR to the airport….they told me he was clear. As I rolled out on final for Runway 23, I saw the Cessna headed right for me. We missed, but not by much. End quote.

    Assuming they were non-radar, I assume they used his last known position as basis for the advice that you were ‘clear’ (not sure if that was their specific wording, or your interpretation), and they kept you coming inbound assuming you’d be #1.

    What was it they did wrong, precisely? Perhaps they could’ve solicited a more recent position report from the Cessna as you got closer to the field, but otherwise, I’m not seeing the problem. VFR flying in 6sm vis is what it is…a bit tricky.

    I’m not posting this to be controversial in the slightest. I’m just not sure what it is the tower did wrong. Two guys heading VFR into a field, it’s not tower’s job to keep them apart, it’s his job to make sure that just one of them is on the runway (at least that’s my understanding).

  14. Robert Mark Says:


    I guess it depends upon how you define “control” as in control tower. I spent many years as a VFR tower guy and if I’d be running this, I would have controlled the situation.

    Just because they are VFR does not mean the controller just stands there and lets aircraft run at each other.

    In this case, I was on a left base in an airplane much faster than the 172 even though I was slowing.

    The controller should at very least have asked the 172 to stay on downwind until one of the two of us saw the other rather than simply stand there and watch to all happen

    As I used to tell students controllers, you are a “controller,” not an “advisor.” So control.

  15. Keith Smith Says:

    Mark, I agree with all of that. A ‘good’ controller would’ve done precisely what you just said, doing his best to help out with the sequencing. In terms of his legal responsibility, though, my understanding is that he would not have been on the hook for ensuring your separation.

    I will say, though, that the tower telling you the 172 was ‘clear’ certainly sounded like it was off base. If tower wasn’t sure where he was, he should’ve told you “use caution for a 172 entering the pattern” and included the rough location.

  16. Robert Mark Says:

    You’re right Keith. If the tower had simply told me he still had no idea where the other traffic was I would have been a bit more ready. Still my fault for tossing the responsibility to the tower I guess too.

    Thanks for your comment. Are you a controller?

  17. Keith Smith Says:

    I’m a private pilot, and an ATC enthusiast, but no, definitely not a r/w controller :) I do provide ATC on VATSIM, though, which has helped me learn quite a bit about the field of ATC. We study from the .65, try to stick with approved phraseology, all of that.

  18. Rick Says:

    >the FAA has certified NO tower displays for >radar separation.

    Not true, Dale. There are many ATCT’s that have CRTDs (R-ACDs) used for radar separation. Look at some of the international airports on the west coast for example.

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