Flight service stations of the future

March 2, 2005

Flight service stations of the future
Lockheed briefs AOPA on modernization plans

Click for larger image
Lockheed Martin briefs AOPA on flight service station of the future. From left: Melissa Rudinger (AOPA), Monte Belger (Lockheed), Daniel Courain (Lockheed), Phil Boyer, Rachel Jackson (Lockheed), Andy
Cebula (AOPA), Andrew Mullen (Lockheed).
Blakey on FSS
See a two-minute video of FAA Administrator Marion Blakey explaining the changes to the FSS system ( broadband | dial-up).

"After spending 90 minutes getting an advance look at a 21st century flight service station and asking hard questions, all I can say is, Wow!" said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "On the basis of what Lockheed Martin will deliver under the contract, pilots are going to be much better served and much safer."

Just two days after the FAA announced that Lockheed Martin had won the contract to run the flight service system, company officials were in AOPA's headquarters to brief the association on what the flight service station of the future is going to look like.

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."

During the bidding process, AOPA spoke with all five of the organizations that were in competition for the flight service station contract to make sure they understood the needs of pilots, and that they kept their focus on customer service.

The FAA will pay Lockheed $1.9 billion over the course of 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 - it costs almost $600 million a year to fund the service while the GA avgas taxes that help pay for it total only $60 million. 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."

The modernized system promises some exciting changes for pilots. You'll still be able to get a briefing over the telephone, and all of the in-flight radio frequencies will remain the same. But in the future you'll also be able to get an interactive briefing. You'll be able to see the same charts and weather maps on your computer as the briefer sees.

If you wish, you'll be able to file pilot and aircraft profiles in the system, so that the briefer can tailor the information specifically to your experience level.

Lockheed also plans to add e-mail and PDA alerts to the system. If a notam comes out or there is a significant change in the weather after your live or computer-based briefing, the system will send you an electronic alert.

The first change hits October 1, when all of the current FAA flight service station employees become Lockheed employees. But from the pilot's perspective, nothing changes. You'll still call the same phone numbers and radio frequencies and talk to the same people in the same locations.

Lockheed's plan is to eventually consolidate the current 58 automated FSS facilities in the lower 48 states, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico into 20 facilities. As detailed in the winning proposal, "Flight Service 21" (FS21) hubs would be located in Ft. Worth, Texas; Leesburg, Virginia; and Prescott, Arizona. Lockheed plans to have them online by April of next year.

Other FS21 facilities would be in Albuquerque; Columbia, Missouri; Denver; Honolulu; Islip, New York; 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.

All the FS21 facilities will be tied together in a super network, sharing a common database. Every briefer will have access to all information.

Briefers will be trained to specific geographic areas, ensuring pilots will still have access to specialized knowledge of local conditions. When you first contact an FS21 facility, you'll likely be prompted to indicate where you're going to be flying, so that you'll be connected to a briefer who knows the area.

Lockheed Martin has considerable experience in consolidating and modernizing air traffic control and information systems. The company most recently brought the Washington, D.C.-area Potomac Tracon online, which consolidated the terminal radar control facilities for Baltimore-Washington, Reagan National, Dulles International, and Richmond International airports and Andrews Air Force Base into one facility.

But as Lockheed gears up, service today will not deteriorate. That's because AOPA pushed hard for specific performance guarantees. 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.

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.

"The system had to change, and this is a change for the better," said Boyer. "As a longtime pilot, who dates back to before the current system when we had some 400 FSSs, I look forward to a cost-effective new system. It should serve pilots better.

For more information, see AOPA's issue brief.

February 3, 2005