President's Position: Modernizing flight service
AOPA President Phil Boyer is a pilot of more than 40 years and a longtime user of FSSs and DUATS.
There is probably no FAA service used more by general aviation pilots than the flight service station (FSS) system. For most of us this is the primary official source for aviation weather, and it is therefore an essential GA service. Unfortunately, the current FSS system is in a state of decline and disrepair. The 2,300 dedicated specialists who brief us by telephone or in flight are highly qualified and ready to assist; however, in the main they rely on obsolete 1970s computer technology. The FAA operates 61 automated flight service stations (AFSSs) throughout the United States, along with additional special facilities in Alaska.
AOPA recognized the service was in need of an overhaul more than five years ago. At that time I asked our technical staff to produce a definitive report on the present and projected state and cost of operating this critical aviation service. It was obvious that the FAA was on a path to identify specific costs for its services to all users. My concern, shared by all pilots, would be a push to offset these costs by aviation "user fees." Throughout the debate on cost accounting for air traffic control services, AOPA has continued to argue that the nation's air traffic control system is not maintained solely for general aviation. It is there primarily for the airlines, and GA is a marginal, incremental user.
There is one glaring exception to that argument: The FSS system is probably the only air traffic division that can be cost accounted fairly easily directly to general aviation, especially to the light-airplane user. The airlines and many corporate operators have private weather services and dispatchers. Our AOPA report showed general aviation to account for 85 percent of the use of flight service stations, leaving no question as to where the cost should be allocated. And, sure enough, in the ensuing years the FAA has established a whole department to look at air traffic costs and came to a similar conclusion. The current FSS system costs more than $550 million annually, which breaks down to a cost of $15 per pilot contact.
The argument that GA's contribution to the FAA revenue stream—the very efficiently collected federal fuel tax—offsets GA's expense to the system doesn't hold in this case. Unfortunately, the total tax collected on avgas, the type of fuel burned by the majority of FSS users, is only $60 million a year. Now, I'm a fair lobbyist, supported by a strong set of advocates in our Washington, D.C., legislative affairs office, but it is hard for even me to think I can convince the decision makers that something isn't amiss with almost $600 million going out and $60 million coming in. Remember, our revenue number is also applied to all air traffic functions, not just FSS. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that the best air transportation system in the world has to be totally self-funded, service by service and user by user, but this is a glaring discrepancy.
Just as we were debating internally with how to handle this well-researched and documented project, the FAA under the guidelines of the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 embarked on a 15-month study. The A-76 study is an established process that directs government agencies to examine functions that might be performed by commercial services. It also recognizes that some functions are inherently governmental and that government employees may be the best providers of the service. A common misconception of the A-76 process is that it results in privatization of a government function. This is not the case. The FAA plays a key role in the process and submitted its own business case termed the MEO, or most efficient organization. The agency has partnered with FSS equipment manufacturer Harris Corporation to submit its plan. In a majority of A-76 studies—none of this magnitude, however—the MEO ended up being awarded the contract. The current bidders for outsourcing the FSS system are aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and others.
AOPA has participated in the A-76 from the start. We continue to represent GA pilots' interests in moving toward a more modern service that, whether performed by the FAA or another major company, continues to be government funded with no fees for use. I repeat—a vital service for aviation safety that is funded by our government with no user fees. Our technical staff works daily on ensuring the customers, you and me as pilots, will have a voice in the service aspects and that businesslike metrics of on-hold time, abandon rates, and others will be a part of the performance standards. AOPA recently completed a member survey to better understand pilot needs and your satisfaction with present FSS performance. It is obvious that 58 AFSSs are no longer needed in today's environment (three in Alaska are exempt from this process), and that walk-in briefings are a thing of the past.
In the coming months you'll hear more about the A-76 process. You may hear from the union members affected that AOPA is "selling them out." Congress has yet to weigh in to the details, which should heat up as certain stations in their states or districts are slated for closure. Rest assured, as both a heavy user of FSS for more than three decades, and as I lead your association in addressing this change, pilot needs and a government-funded service, without user fees, will be of utmost importance.