January 2, 2005
The flight service station system is finally going to be modernized. For the first time in history, pilots are going to get a contractual guarantee that a live briefer will answer their phone calls within 20 seconds and acknowledge their radio calls within five seconds. Flight plans will be filed within three minutes. It's in the contract.
And there will be no user fees.
"Better service and no fees. That's the bottom line for pilots," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And as the consumer advocate for general aviation pilots, AOPA fought in the halls of Congress and the FAA to make sure that FSS customers are going to get the service they need."
The FAA announced this afternoon that it had selected a team headed by Lockheed Martin to take over operation of the agency's 58 automated flight service stations (AFSS) in the lower 48 states, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Under the terms of the contract, Lockheed must provide safety of flight information to pilots under strict safety and service requirements.
To continue advocating for the customers, Boyer and senior AOPA staffers will be meeting with Lockheed officials in AOPA's Frederick, Maryland, headquarters this Thursday.
The contract, the result of an "A-76" study started in 2003, will run for five years with an option for an additional five years. If the contract is renewed, FAA will pay Lockheed $1.9 billion over the course of the 10 years, an estimated savings of $2.2 billion over what it would have cost for the FAA to continue providing the service using its existing infrastructure and procedures.
"This is a sound business decision," said Boyer. "The FSS system is antiquated and hemorrhaging money. And as any pilot who has been stuck on hold for 20 minutes trying to get a weather briefing can tell you, the system is overloaded and frequently non-responsive."
That will change. But not immediately.
Lockheed's plan is to eventually consolidate the current 58 AFSS facilities into 20 facilities. As detailed in the winning proposal, AFSS hubs would be located in Ft. Worth, Texas; Leesburg, Virginia; and Prescott, Arizona. Other facilities would be in Albuquerque; Columbia, Missouri; Denver; Honolulu; Kankakee, Illinois; Lansing, Michigan; Macon, Georgia; Miami; Nashville; Oakland, California; Princeton, Minnesota; Raleigh, North Carolina; St. Petersburg, Florida; San Diego; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Seattle. Lockheed said it would have these centers up and running by March 2007.
The losers in this competition can file a protest within 15 days. And with the billions of dollars at stake, they likely will. The FAA is expected to resolve any protest within 90 days, and then a three-year transition period begins.
But service will not deteriorate. That's because AOPA pushed hard for specific performance guarantees during the A-76 study. And AOPA successfully lobbied Congress to instruct the FAA to require the contractor to provide "comprehensive and specific customer service standards for providing flight briefings to pilots as well as a process for ongoing customer service monitoring and evaluation."
This is one of the biggest outsourcing contracts the federal government has awarded to date. But it is not the first.
"DUATS services are provided by two contractors to the FAA. And many smaller airports have control towers operated by contractors - control towers that would be too expensive to operate if the FAA were doing it," said Boyer. "It's important to understand that this FSS outsourcing contract is the same thing. It is not privatization. The government retains control and responsibility for providing the service."
And what are some of those controls?
First and foremost, pilots - the "customers" - must be satisfied with the "quality, timeliness, accuracy, customer service, and relevance of overall and specific services received." The FAA is requiring the contractor to regularly survey pilots to make sure.
And this afternoon, a senior Lockheed manager told Boyer, "We want to hear from AOPA. Anytime your members have a problem, let us know. We want to fix it. You have my pledge."
Calls have to be answered within 20 seconds. And pilots are to receive service within 15 seconds of a radio call. Pireps must be processed within 30 seconds of receipt, 15 seconds if they are urgent. That will all be measured and reported.
Flight service briefers must have "knowledge and skills specific to the flight plan areas that a given employee is servicing." In other words, they're supposed to know about unique local weather conditions, terrain, and airspace. They'll be tested.
"The system had to change, and this is a change for the better," said Boyer. "Much better service at a lower cost to the taxpayers. We, the customers and the taxpayers, should reap the benefits."
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