In late April, the FSS system, referred to as Flight Service for the Twenty-first Century (FS21) being run by Lockheed Martin under contract with the FAA, began experiencing serious problems. An aggressive consolidation schedule, combined with computer glitches and a busy flying season overwhelmed the new system. As the watchdog for the pilot community, AOPA's staff reacted quickly, working directly with the FAA and Lockheed Martin to resolve safety of flight and service issues.
AOPA continues to remain in very close contact with the FAA and Lockheed Martin officials to make sure they understand the severity of the flight service station problems and quickly resolve them.
On February 1, 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that Lockheed Martin has been awarded its contract to run the flight service system. The announcement was the culmination of a 14-month study to compare the costs of providing flight services by the FAA versus the costs of contracting services to commercial companies. The FAA studied operations at 58 of the agency's 61 automated flight service stations (FSSs) throughout the United States. The FSS functions in Alaska were excluded from the study and will continue to be operated by the FAA. The study was conducted under the guidelines of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-76, which direct government agencies to examine functions that might be performed by commercial sources.
The driving factors of the FSS A-76 study were the General Accounting Office (GAO) and Inspector General (IG) reports, published in 2001, which were critical of the current FSS program. These reports outline the escalating cost to maintain the current FSS program, the FAA's inability to effectively modernize the current FSS computer system, and widespread inefficiencies in the current FSS program. The current FSS system costs more than $550 million annually, which breaks down to an approximate cost of $15 per pilot contact. The reports recommend consolidation of FSSs, citing significant cost savings.
Lockheed Martin has been awarded a $1.9 billion; 10-year contract that is estimated will save the government $2.2 billion. This figure is based on the FAA's cost accounting analysis of the current AFSS program for the 58 locations, which cost $435 million a year to operate. Over 10 years, this would cost the government $4.3 billion. Not included in this figure are approximately $2 million in personnel and equipment costs that the government will continue to incur, even after Lockheed takes over provision of the services.
In the case of the FSS A-76 study, four commercial companies (called service providers) and the FAA itself, in partnership with Harris Corporation, an FSS equipment manufacturer, have submitted proposals for a new FSS system. The FAA makes its own business case that it is the most efficient organization (MEO) to run flight services. The other bidders include aerospace companies Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Computer Sciences Corporation.
The contract went into effect on October 1, 2005, with no impact on continuity of service, a "seamless" change for pilots, in that Lockheed Martin took over FSS as a "turnkey" operation. Implementation of a modernized FSS system began in January 2007 and will be completed by July 2007.
Lockheed Martin's flight services system is called "Flight Services 21" (FS21) and, when complete, will provide a fully integrated nationwide network that gives all flight service specialists and pilots access to flight plan information from a single, common database.
The FSS system is the only official source for aviation weather and is, therefore, an essential general aviation service. Unfortunately, the current FSS system is in a state of decline and disrepair. It relies on obsolete 1970s computer technology that no longer meets today's operational requirements.
AOPA has been part of the A-76 process from the beginning and was successful in ensuring that the study had a customer service focus and that pilots' interests were represented. Now that Lockheed Martin has taken over provision of FSS services for pilots, AOPA will continue to have a voice in the performance of the new system. In fact, at AOPA Expo 2006 in Palm Springs, California, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced that AOPA has been appointed a seat on the FSS Board of Cost and Performance Review (BCPR).
On the basis of what Lockheed Martin will deliver under the contract, pilots are going to be much better served and much safer. Just as important, there will not be a fee for the service. AOPA's seat on the board and our continued role as your "watchdog" allows us to hold the FAA and Lockheed accountable to contract.
"Flight Service 21" (FS21) will consist of hubs located in Fort Worth, Texas; Leesburg, Virginia; and Prescott, Arizona. All three hubs went into operational testing mode in January 2007.
Other FS21 facilities would be in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Columbia, Missouri; Denver, Colorado; Honolulu, Hawaii; Islip, New York; Kankakee, Illinois; Lansing, Michigan; Macon, Georgia; Miami, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; Oakland, California; Princeton, Minnesota; Raleigh, North Carolina; St. Petersburg, Florida; San Diego, California; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Seattle, Washington. These facilities will be retrofitted with the new FS21 system during 2007.
All the FS21 facilities will be tied together in a super network, sharing a common database. Every briefer will have access to all information.
Performance Measurements — For the first time there are specific, measurable performance requirements for flight service specialists. These performance measures include a contractual guarantee that a live briefer will answer pilots' phone calls within 20 seconds and acknowledge their radio calls within five seconds. Flight plans will be filed within three minutes.
Telephone Briefings — Pilots will still be able to get a briefing over the telephone, and all of the in-flight radio frequencies will remain the same.
Computer-based Interactive Briefings — Pilots will be able to access flight service via a Web portal and receive an interactive briefing. This gives pilots the ability to file flight plans online and see the same charts and weather maps on their computers as the briefer sees.
Pilot Profiles — If desired, pilots will be able to file pilot and aircraft profiles in the system so that the briefer can tailor the information specifically to an experience level.
E-mail and PDA Alerts — If a notam comes out or there is a significant change in the weather after a pilot's live or computer-based briefing, the system will send the pilot an electronic alert.
Local Knowledge — Briefers will be trained to specific geographic areas, ensuring pilots will still have access to specialized knowledge of local conditions. When pilots first contact an FS21 facility, they'll be prompted to indicate the area that the flight will occur, so that they can be connected to a briefer who knows the area.
Integrated Flight Planning Database — FS21 will have a fully integrated database that is networked nationwide, allowing all AFSS specialists to access flight plan information from a single, common database regardless of their physical location.
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.
The FAA operates 61 automated FSSs throughout the United States. The FSS functions in Alaska have been excluded due to its unique nature and requirements. Approximately 2,700 employees at 58 FSSs will be studied. Before initiating the competitive sourcing study, the FAA, assisted by a feasibility study prepared by Grant Thornton LLP, determined that: a substantial portion of the FSS functions are commercial in nature; industry is capable and interested in performing the functions; and outsourcing will not compromise safety or homeland security.
The steps of the A-76 process are as follows:
The study process takes a minimum of 12 months to complete.
Aviation weather services are critical to public safety and should be provided by the government without fees. However, AOPA recognizes that the current FSS system is in serious jeopardy and that there may be better ways of doing business. AOPA worked to ensure that the A-76 study looks at alternatives for providing modernized flight services to pilots with the government still retaining the ultimate responsibility for providing the service. AOPA advocated successfully to ensure that the FAA study recognized that the provision of aviation weather services is a government function, and these services should not be fee based or privatized. AOPA would actively oppose any measures that would remove responsibility for flight services from the federal government. The use of outside resources for FSS functions is not unprecedented. In the 1980s, the FAA implemented the DUAT service, with private contractors providing aviation weather services directly to pilots.
The association played a key role in identifying general aviation requirements related to aviation weather services, notams, and other safety functions performed by FSSs. AOPA worked closely with the FAA in the development of the "performance work statement" that identifies and describes the functions and requirements of FSSs. This work resulted in an A-76 study that is heavily focused on customer service, and AOPA is committed to seeing that all pilots benefit from this effort to identify the needs for a more modern FSS system.
AOPA advocacy also resulted in a congressional directive to the FAA, ensuring pilots continue to get the best possible flight briefing and en route information services without user fees. Congress told the FAA to develop comprehensive customer service standards for pilot briefings. This guidance from Congress is a very pointed reminder to the agency that pilots should get a high level of service no matter who ultimately provides the briefing. Just like commercial inbound call centers, flight service stations must have metrics for on-hold times, abandon rates, and time to answer calls from pilots. Flight service station functions are safety-of-flight issues, and pilot service can't be shortchanged.
The congressional language says, "In order to maintain a high level of safety and efficiency in the provision of flight service activities, the Committee urges FAA to ensure that the flight service station competitive sourcing effort require bidders 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."
Updated Tuesday, July 17, 2007 12:29:22 PM