What the amendment means to GA pilots
What if the House Transportation-Treasury-Housing Appropriations bill, complete with the amendment preventing money from being spent on the FSS modernization contract, does make it through Congress?
That's the $350-million question that has not been answered.
What we do know is that things won't get any better, and they could get a whole lot worse.
"Everything that AOPA has worked for - improved services, performance guarantees, Internet access to briefings, and $2.2 billion in cost savings over the next decade - would be lost," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The FAA has been unable to modernize flight service stations on its own, and nothing about this amendment would change that. In fact, GA pilots could expect to receive worse service at a higher cost, potentially compromising safety and giving user-fee advocates another issue."
If the bill becomes law, some legal experts believe the FAA would be forced to honor the bid that was submitted by current FSS employees during the A-76 bidding process. If that happens, the number of FSS facilities would be cut from the current 58 to only four, forcing all employees to relocate and possibly resulting in even more job losses.
Lockheed-Martin's bid keeps 20 facilities in place with 1,000 employees, while the FAA's in-house bid would build three new facilities and keep only 966 employees.
Other possible scenarios are equally grim:
Make no mistake: AOPA does not support privatization or outsourcing of such critical elements of the National Airspace System as tracons, en route air traffic control, or most tower operations.
"Many services must be provided by government employees for reasons of coordination, security, and safety," Boyer said. "But FSS functions provided by private industry under government supervision don't compromise that."
"None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to provide for the competitive sourcing of flight service stations." That simple, one-line amendment to the FAA's appropriations bill could kill improved FSS services for general aviation pilots.
"I'm incredulous that in an atmosphere of concerns for FAA funding, more business-like air traffic operations - and wise use of taxpayers dollars - that Congress even considered, much less accepted, this amendment," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "We've worked with the FAA for three long years to get a better safety-of-flight information system for general aviation pilots that will also save $2.2 billion over 10 years. It would be a travesty for all of that to be undone now to return to a labor-intensive, antiquated, expensive system that can't meet modern needs."
Last week, the House passed the Transportation-Treasury-Housing Appropriations bill with the amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And it means, in plain English, that the FAA would be forced to terminate the FSS modernization contract with Lockheed-Martin, the taxpayers would pay a $350 million penalty to Lockheed and other bidders, and pilots would continue to suffer through interminable hold times and briefers who don't have access to all the data in the system.
It is, however, not a done deal. The Senate would have to pass the bill with that amendment before it could become law, and there is strong opposition to Sanders' amendment from the FAA and the Bush administration. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it crosses his desk with the amendment still attached.
The House members who favored the anti-modernization amendment cited two reasons: safety and loss of jobs. And as Rep. Sanders noted during the floor debate, the amendment had "the strong support of the AFL-CIO, representing 13 million American workers, the Transportation Trades Department, the Professional Airway Systems Specialists (PASS), and the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS)." (PASS and NAATS are the unions representing federal employees who maintain FAA equipment and staff flight service stations.)
But members who opposed the amendment rejected the safety argument as unfounded. "Under the FAA [flight service station] reform plan, $2.2 billion in taxpayers' dollars will be saved, and again we will have new technology to make the airspace for our general aviation pilots safer, with the best, most efficient, cost-effective technology, and at the same time, we protect the employees that are in place," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee.
"Contracting out flight service stations will result in no erosion in safety," said Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "It is a safer system, and 600,000 general aviation pilots will get better service. The contract will save taxpayers money. Not a bad idea. Employees will be protected. This, in my judgment, is a no-brainer. Congress should not step in after the fact to stop this contract and deny better services to more than 600,000 private pilots."
Some of the members of Congress acknowledged that the current FSS system is inadequate and overpriced, even quoting AOPA President Phil Boyer during the debate: "Any pilot who has been stuck on hold for 20 minutes trying to get a weather briefing can tell you, the system is overloaded and frequently non-responsive. The system had to change, and this is a change for the better."
In fact, AOPA has been working for years to ensure that the new FSS system would provide better service at a better price. Thanks to AOPA insistence, the contract with Lockheed-Martin includes service and performance metrics and guarantees, such as a contractual guarantee that a live briefer will answer pilot phone calls within 20 seconds and acknowledge their radio calls within five seconds. Flight plans will be filed within three minutes. And there will be no user fees.
Briefers will have access to all the data in the system, including the L-notams that today reside in only one FSS and can't be retrieved easily by pilots or briefers outside the area. Under the Lockheed Martin contract, briefers will also have to be certified on local area operations, and a briefer with local knowledge will be on duty and available to any pilot 24/7 for every defined local area.
"It is critical that FSS services be modernized so that the highest degree of safety and efficiency are maintained," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of government and technical affairs. "The FAA has been unable to do that. This contract can, and it would be most unfortunate if congressional action derails again something which pilots have been awaiting for more than 20 years.
"Regardless of who provides the service, pilots need and deserve much better than what they're getting now."
Updated July 8, 2005, 4:23 p.m. EDT