AOPA President Phil Boyer and his staff were instrumental in assuring a successful outsourcing of the FSS system.
Recently, a small booklet designed for pilots in Europe crossed my desk. It lists on a country-by-country basis the charges one must pay for various preflight and in-flight briefing services, the equivalent of using our FAA flight service stations (FSSs). It certainly supported my belief over the past seven years that AOPA could not just let our current FAA-operated system limp along, setting ourselves up for having to publish a similar booklet.
For those members who haven't been reading my column during the past 18 months, one only has to read the pages of this European booklet to understand why AOPA didn't oppose contracting out the FSS program. The two-word answer is "user fees." By addressing the FSS system before the debate for user fees (which are supported by the FAA and the airlines) ramps up to a feverish pitch, we eliminated a huge liability for general aviation. The FSS system is the one component of air traffic control that is used almost exclusively by general aviation, unlike control towers, tracons, and centers, which have mixed airline, military, and GA use. To make matters worse, it was in urgent need of expensive technology upgrades, and its operating costs were spiraling out of control. Your association's own analysis showed that the flight service was costing in excess of $600 million annually, which translates to almost $25 per pilot contact. Outsourcing the program accomplished two goals; it significantly reduced the price tag, saving the government $2.2 billion over the next decade, and should result in a modern, more efficient system.
With that background, let me quote some "user fee" numbers that European countries charge for flight services, to help you better understand why reducing costs is so important and why AOPA is adamantly opposed to a "user fee" system.
Get out your credit card if you want to fly in France. To call for an FSS briefing there will cost you a $1.64 access fee and 42 cents a minute. Internet access to weather services is billed at 41 cents a minute. For a specialist briefing in Germany it will cost you $1.50 a minute. And Internet access is a relative bargain with an annual fee of $105 for unlimited use. (Compare that to what you pay for DUATS in the United States.) The United Kingdom is probably the most expensive at almost $30 per "consultation," plus an additional $5.31 for each forecast product used.
So in the four months since Lockheed Martin has assumed operation of our FSS system, how goes it?
For now, the only change you may have noticed is that your phone call is answered more quickly than in the past. With no new equipment, phone systems, or facilities, the average hold time for a briefing has gone from 29 seconds under the FAA-operated system down to 13 seconds, less than half the wait time. The number of dropped calls has been reduced dramatically from 3.5 percent to 1.2 percent, while the average length of a phone-call briefing is the same. AOPA's Pilot Assistance Hotline (800/USA-AOPA) and many inbound telephone centers use a 3-percent abandon rate goal, so the 1.2 percent is better than the norm.
It appears that as soon as Lockheed Martin took over from the FAA it implemented more efficient procedures for distributing workload. In plain language, this means calls are "off-loaded" to other FSS locations more quickly. Under this system, flight-plan areas overlap so that pilots still receive local area knowledge when calls are off-loaded. Plus, when the Katrina disaster and subsequent hurricanes took their toll on FSS operations, this distributed call pattern allowed pilots to continue to receive service.
What appears to be a smooth transition to date isn't happenstance. Your association has been working hard to ensure that the FAA's plan to contract out FSSs did not compromise service or the safety of pilots. In fact, AOPA helped set customer-service standards for the contract that Lockheed Martin won. And AOPA will continue in its "watchdog" role to make sure that Lockheed meets all of the performance standards and is accountable to pilots and the FAA.
We're counting down to a projected date in March 2007 when Lockheed will implement its new modern FS21 system, making high-tech flight-planning tools available to benefit pilots and enhancing their ability to get a briefing, file a flight plan, and get in-flight services. Then the clock starts ticking on an 18-month systemwide transition to FS21. The first of three FSS hub stations in Leesburg, Virginia, also becomes operational in March 2007, with the other two hub facilities, in Fort Worth, Texas, and Prescott, Arizona, going operational by the fall. The remaining FSS facilities in the United States (except for Alaska, which keeps its current system) will be consolidated to 17 remaining facilities, which will be upgraded with FS21 technology by July 2008.
AOPA's role now and in the future is to ensure we are getting flight service for the twenty-first century, and that all of these enhanced services will continue to be provided without user fees — AOPA will make sure of that. You'll know that the transition has been successful when you call 800/WX-BRIEF and hear, "Welcome to the FS21 system."