President's Position: Flight service update

June 1, 2008

Phil Boyer has served as president of AOPA for more than 17 years.

Last year we all experienced the somewhat flawed transition of the government-funded and operated flight service station system (FSS) to a government-funded system operated by Lockheed Martin (LM). Many changes took place in a very short period, beginning in late spring as the new operator consolidated facilities; installed new, modern, computerized equipment; and blended seasoned FSS specialists with new hires. The monumental task in a condensed time frame was a recipe for the problems that occurred.

Both AOPA staff and I have worked diligently to monitor LM performance metrics and be the pilot “watchdog” to advocate solutions to the problems reported by pilots. The issue even gained the attention of Congress when a hearing was held last October, and not only did I testify on your behalf as users, but I highly criticized the FAA for ignoring its oversight responsibilities the moment the contract for outsourcing was signed with LM.

It should be noted that the FSS was not privatized, but just like contract towers and other FAA services, the agency remained the owner and paid the bill for operations of this specific function. AOPA supported the underlying concept of outsourcing, and if we had it to do again, we would still recommend this as a means to protect FSS in America from privatization. Recently the leader of AOPA-Switzerland was visiting my home and he indicated that the Swiss Airman’s Information Service costs $50 (U.S.) a year just to use the Internet, or our equivalent of DUATs. And, if you want to call a briefer—our 1-800-WXBRIEF—it is $1.50 a minute! In the current FAA funding debate, we avoided the whole subject of the $600 million a year it previously cost for flight service prior to the transition.

AOPA had no hand in picking LM; that was a closed bidding process with the selection made by the FAA administrator. When the selection of LM was announced we all thought it was a good choice, since this company already runs much bigger air traffic services and functions for the FAA.

Last year at this time was the peak of LM’s problems, so what’s in store this year? Only the coming months will tell, but the outlook is good. Over the last few months at Pilot Town Meetings I have been asking members questions to assess their most recent experience. Over two-thirds had their calls answered in less than one minute with an 80-percent “satisfied” or “very satisfied” rating. This satisfaction rating is equal to what AOPA surveyed prior to the outsourcing.

Summer, holiday weekends, and special events cause spikes in the demand for FSS services. LM has created a national traffic manager position, staffed 24/7 to handle added call volume. The system also has a surge capacity of up to 100 flight service specialists who can be brought in to handle as many as 4,000 extra calls a day. Since our day in Congress, LM has added 217 new staff positions, and will bring back 38 retirees to provide part-time help during the busy flying summer months. Additional workstations at the high-volume locations of Nashville and Raleigh have been installed. Everything is not perfect. Miami is struggling with longer hold times, but LM has promised to increase staffing and provide additional training to meet its contract requirements. And the FAA is now monitoring performance—as it should have from the beginning. AOPA asked Congress to require the FAA to report every 90 days on the service levels and remaining problems. Demands like this from our elected officials cannot go unheeded by a federal agency. The second report letter is due any day now.

It was also gratifying to receive a recent e-mail from Mark, an AOPA member since 1980, and one of my many “pen pals.” The subject line read, “Improvements evident with L-M Flight Service.” Mark went on to remind me how critical he had been of the outsourcing, but, “I am also happy to offer kudos where it is due...significant improvements in response time and briefing content...Best yet, on my last call, the briefer initially responded with ‘What can I do for you, N1085Z?’”

In my recent surveys, however, seven out of 10 members are still not aware that late last year, AOPA urged the FAA to set up an easier way than e-mail for a disgruntled pilot to register bad service. Immediately after hanging up on an FSS call, redial 888-FLT-SRVC. The message system allows you to leave an instant recollection of the problem, your contact and aircraft information and other comments. I assure you that all of these calls receive attention and LM reports the problem/resolution to AOPA and the FAA. Some calls have resulted in solving technical problems and human error that would otherwise have gone undiscovered. In support of the new system, problems can’t be solved if we pilots don’t report them.

Mark ended his e-mail, “Just wanted you to know that there is often a silver lining within the storm clouds. Thanks for doing a terrific job in looking out for the interest of aircraft owners and pilots.” Mark, we’ll put your thanks on hold until this fall. But, from our current perspective and with AOPA member assistance in reporting problems, it looks like pilots flying this summer may find significantly improved flight service.

Take the ASF Pilot’s Guide to Flight Service mini-course and download the FSS Tips Card.