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Air Traffic Services Brief -- Flight Service Station (FSS) Modernization: Lockheed Martin to Provide Flight Services for the 21st Century

Air Traffic Services Brief: Flight Service Station (FSS) Modernization: Lockheed Martin to Provide Flight Services for the 21st Century

Updates and Actions

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.

The issue

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 importance to our members

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.

The major components of Lockheed's FS21 system

"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:

  1. A feasibility study is done to determine whether it is "feasible" to conduct a study on the service in question.
  2. A business case analysis is completed to establish the scope of the study and identify the solicitation strategy and structure of the study.
  3. A communication plan is established that outlines the method for talking to and delivering important information to affected employees, outside stakeholders, and other interested parties.
  4. Next, an action plan specifies activities, milestones, roles, and responsibilities of participants in the A-76 study.
  5. A performance work statement is written that describes activities and work to be accomplished. This includes interviews with managers and employees to develop requirements.
  6. A quality assurance surveillance plan is established and used as a tool to monitor how well the service provider is meeting the performance standards.
  7. The next step is publication of a management plan for the most efficient organization (MEO) and a technical performance plan. The MEO includes an opportunity for the current FSS provider (i.e., the FAA) to propose an in-house organization designed to perform the function in the most efficient manner at the least cost. Eventually the study will compare the in-house cost estimate to the contractor proposals.
  8. An independent review is then conducted to validate results.
  9. Finally a solicitation and source selection occurs and a tentative decision is made. This is essentially a contracting mechanism to review proposals and make a final decision. The A-76 guidance requires that a contractor proposal must beat the government proposal by at least 10 percent of the labor costs to be considered.
  10. Following the decision, there is an administrative appeals process that is the final step to address any oversights and errors and provide an opportunity for challenges to any final decision.

The study process takes a minimum of 12 months to complete.

AOPA's position

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."


  • August 2002 — The FAA announces it is moving forward with the A-76 study and releases feasibility study.
  • October 2002 — The FAA is currently conducting the business case analysis to determine the scope of the study and identify the solicitation strategy and the structure of the study.
  • November 2002 — AOPA requests official participation in the "performance of work" statement of the A-76 study.
  • March 2003 — AOPA receives FAA approval to participate in A-76 study.
  • December 2003 — The FAA formally announces the A-76 study and releases draft solicitation, including the performance work statement (PWS) and quality surveillance assurance plan (QASP). The target completion date for the study is March 17, 2005.
  • May 2004 — The FAA released its official AFSS solicitation and screening information request (SIR) to potential service providers.
  • August 2004 — Congress directs the FAA to develop comprehensive customer service standards for pilot briefings.
  • September 2004 — Final proposals submitted to the FAA by service providers.
  • February 1, 2005 — The FAA announces that Lockheed Martin has won the award to run flight service.
  • February 3, 2005 — Lockheed officials visit AOPA's headquarters to brief the association on what the flight service station of the future is going to look like.
  • October 4, 2005 — Lockheed takes over FAA Flight Service Program.
  • November 2006 — AOPA appointed to the FSS Board of Cost and Performance Review.
  • April 2007 — AOPA informed that Lockheed phone system failed and back-up system does not kick in. AOPA immediately responds by logging and prioritizing pilot complaints and sending them to the FAA and Lockheed for follow-up action.
  • May 3, 2007 — AOPA holds meeting with Lockheed officials, requesting swift action in addressing problems while continuing to log and prioritize pilot complaints and send them to FAA and Lockheed for follow-up.
  • May 9, 2007 — AOPA meets with DOT Inspector General's office to outline serious problems occurring with FSS. DOT IG informs AOPA it will soon release a report to Congress on the FSS outsourcing process and will initiate a new investigation on the reported service problems.
  • May 11, 2007 — AOPA asks the FAA administrator to hold Lockheed Martin's feet to the fire to fix serious flight service problems and to offer immediate remedies to solve the safety of flight issues.
  • May 14, 2007 — The FAA pledges to do whatever it takes to get pilots the safety of flight information they need and deserve.
  • May 18, 2007 — The DOT IG releases report saying the FSS consolidation schedule was too aggressive, the FAA and Lockheed did not have adequate contingency plans to handle the problems, and the FAA needed to improve oversight.
  • May 31, 2007 — Congress weighs in stating their concern about the problems with the FSS system. Congressman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, demanding to know "what the FAA is doing to fix these serious flight service problems both now and long term."
  • June 2, 2007 — Lockheed Martin managers attend AOPA's annual Fly-In. To their credit, the managers were here, they faced the music, and, by all reports, were gracious and tried to answer all pilots' concerns.
  • June 4, 2007 — AOPA's Phil Boyer meets with Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, to discuss what Congress can do to help pilots by having the FAA and Lockheed Martin improve FSS service.
  • June 6, 2007 — AOPA meets with DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel and his staff office to once again detail member problems with the flight service station. For nearly two hours, AOPA laid out the problems with long hold times, dropped calls, lost flight plans, inexperienced briefers, and failure to supply critical information such as TFRs. AOPA also shared the results of a recent member AFSS survey.
  • June 13, 2007 — AOPA President Phil Boyer informed Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) on the system problems. Mica is the former chairman of the aviation subcommittee and currently the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica told us in a letter that he contacted Lockheed Martin, and the company told him that they are "working closely with AOPA to address any and all issues or complaints." He told us that he will "continue to closely monitor this situation and will share any updates I receive with your organization."
  • June 28, 2007 — The evidence of AOPA's ongoing discussions with Congress came out in the House FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007 (H.R.2881). The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said, "Users of the FAA's flight service station contract services have reported serious and systemic safety-related and operational performance problems." To address that, the committee created Section 217 of the bill that would require the FAA to "develop and implement a monitoring system for flight service specialist staffing and training." The monitoring program should also be checking for "system outages, excessive hold times, dropped calls, poor quality briefings, and any other safety or customer service issues under a contract for flight service station services." The bill would also require the FAA to put a plan into place to provide for uninterrupted flight service station services in the event that the contractor doesn't meet all the terms of the contract or defaults for any reason.
  • July 10, 2007 — AOPA meets with LM officials responsible for the FSS system, and they told us that 80 percent of their briefers have now been trained on the new FS21 information system. Eleven of 16 satellite stations have been refurbished and upgraded to the FS21 system, and the remainder of the stations should be up and running with the new system by mid-August. In terms of service, LM's statistics show that the company more consistently achieving its contractual obligations. Every day last week, for example, they say they met the goal of answering 80 percent of all phone calls within 20 seconds. And truth be told, we're getting fewer complaints about long hold times and dropped calls.

Updated Tuesday, July 17, 2007 12:29:22 PM