The modernization of the antiquated flight service station system is moving forward. The next big step comes on October 4 when Lockheed-Martin takes over operations under a contract paid for and supervised by the FAA.
AOPA supports this change to the FSS program because, "After more than five years of detailed AOPA investigations into the costs of the FSS system and attempts to provide modernization funds, and concurrent work by several government agencies, we are convinced that this is the right thing at the right time for the benefit of GA pilots," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And we will get these significantly improved services funded by aviation taxes, not user fees."
AOPA concluded that the FAA was unable to effectively modernize the current system, and that caused mounting inefficiencies and escalating costs. The system costs more than $550 million a year to operate (that's far more than the $60 million a year GA contributes to the aviation trust fund), but doesn't meet the operational needs of pilots.
"Anybody who's listened on hold to 'all briefers are busy' for twenty minutes on a busy flying day knows that," said Boyer.
AOPA has insisted from the beginning that customer service should be the priority. The Lockheed-Martin contract guarantees phone calls will be answered within 20 seconds, radio calls acknowledged within 5 seconds. There are no such guarantees or performance metrics in the current system, nor does the FAA have any systems installed to measure telephone hold times or abandon rates.
Briefers will also have access to an integrated database, so that every briefer can get every piece of information a pilot needs, unlike today's balkanized system where a pilot sometimes needs to know that a notam exists in another flight service station so he can ask his briefer to retrieve it. Pilots are also guaranteed that no matter when they call the new flight service system, they can get a briefer who's been trained and certified on local area weather patterns and operations.
However, there may be some service glitches during the "ramp up" phase as FAA employees transfer to Lockheed-Martin and the contractor upgrades equipment.
"Pilots should report any difficulties with FSS services to AOPA," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "We'll make sure the problem is reported and rectified."
Pilots have also reported to AOPA some rumors that are being circulated about the change to Lockheed-Martin.
"This is a big change for long-time government employees, and some of them are understandably unhappy," said Cebula. "But the rumors pilots are hearing are just plain wrong."
One accusation is that AOPA has not supported the FSS employees in their concerns for job losses or the need to relocate. There is no question that this outsourcing move is not an easy one for the many dedicated and competent FSS specialists who continue to serve pilots with their expertise — and who never were a part of the problem.
"However, AOPA is not the union for this workgroup," said Boyer. "Our role has been to look out for the interests of the nations' pilots, and make sure they continue to receive free and efficient inflight and preflight information.
"Sadly, nobody is guaranteed a job for life any more, not even in the government. Pilots understand the need for a twenty-first century FSS system and the need to significantly the costs of providing that service. They also understand that ultimately a few hundred people might lose jobs but they have a hard time trading that off for the needs of more than 600,000 pilots.
"In a recent AOPA survey, the overwhelming majority of our members told us that they would be satisfied with the government contracting out FSS services."
August 5, 2005