Sometime this week, the FAA is expected to announce the winning contender in the government's bidding process (called an A-76 study) to operate the 58 flight service stations (FSSs) located in the continental United States.
"Regardless of who wins the bid, members must know that the current FSS service will not change immediately, and you will continue to use FSS like you always have," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "But when it does change, it will get better, with high standards for quality flight briefing services and new performance metrics. Just as important, no user fees are in the FSS future, and the government will keep responsibility for operating the system."
"The FSS system can't continue to hemorrhage money at the present rate," said Boyer. "It costs close to $600 million a year to run it, yet FSS' primary 'customers,' general aviation pilots, pay $60 million a year in fuel taxes into the aviation trust fund.
"AOPA has argued for years that the FAA needs to be run more like a business," Boyer said. "It's pretty hard to make a business case for that great a discrepancy between cost and revenue."
But you can - and AOPA will continue to - make the case that FSS services are critical to safety and that the government has the duty to provide them to pilots without a fee for service. AOPA lobbied Congress for legislative direction that tells the FAA to measure both the performance of the FSS provider and customer satisfaction. The FAA will have to show that pilots are satisfied with the quality, timeliness, accuracy, and relevance of briefings.
As the announcement of the winning bidder draws near, the big question is whether the contract will go to current FAA employees in partnership with Harris Corporation, or one of four outside contractors. We won't know for several weeks, because even after the FAA decides, there is an appeal period.
The contract will be awarded to the bidder who provides the "best value" in A-76 government-speak. In addition to FAA employees, the contenders are Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and DUATS-contractor Computer Sciences Corporation. No matter who wins, there will be changes. Many automated flight service stations may be consolidated, for example. And walk-in briefings will likely become a thing of the past.
This change isn't privatization, because the government retains responsibility and control. But it is a way of rationalizing and modernizing a hopelessly outdated, costly, and inefficient system. (See Phil Boyer's editorials, " FSS" and " Modernizing flight service," and AOPA's issue brief.)
The FAA's schedule calls for a six- to nine-month phase-in period after the new FSS service provider is selected, then a 36-month transition period. If the contract goes to an outside vendor, current FAA briefers have a "right of first refusal" for jobs with the new contractor. (See the FAA's Office of Competitive Sourcing Acquisition Web site.)
Update: January 31, 2005