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AOPA raises concerns over flight service headaches

AOPA raises concerns over flight service headaches

Long hold times. Disconnects. Lost flight plans. Doesn't sound like the flight service system of the future. But for isolated areas, this has been the present state of affairs.

Members in some locations may experience problems as Lockheed Martin and the FAA consolidate and modernize the flight service station (FSS) system. AOPA, meanwhile, has been taking member complaints directly to Lockheed for answers.

"This is not the level of service pilots expect," said Andy Cebula, AOPA executive vice president of government affairs, during a meeting with company officials on May 3. "Lockheed and the FAA must live up to the standards they set."

Many of the problems are due to computer glitches. On the afternoon of April 29, for instance, a Lockheed server crashed, shutting down all three data centers or hub stations for seven minutes. A backup system didn't activate, which meant it had to be started manually, causing a bigger delay. Lockheed says that problem has been fixed. Software glitches also resulted in lost flight plans and other problems. The company says those problems have been taken care of, too.

Because of all the computer problems, Lockheed has been using the FAA's backup system in addition to its new FS21 (twenty-first century) system. This means the briefer has to enter information twice, creating longer briefing and hold times.

Still, there are human factors to consider as part of the transformation. Fifty-eight of the 61 stations (Alaska keeps its present three) are being consolidated into the hubs at Leesburg, Virginia; Fort Worth, Texas; and Prescott, Arizona. There will be 17 satellite stations throughout the country.

Before each facility is closed, half of the flight service specialists leave for two weeks of training. Once a facility does close, the other half go in for training. This means four weeks of localized disruption where you might experience longer hold times or calls being routed to distant stations. There is also a learning curve with the news system. So far, 402 specialists out of 1,040 have been trained on the new system, and all training is expected to be completed in August.

Lockheed says it still has 44 stations to consolidate and bring into the hub system. Although it's occurring rapidly and on schedule, it's not happening in a geographically uniform way. Instead of having a call transferred to the next closest station, it goes to the next available briefer who might be all the way across the country. Lockheed plans to have all the stations connected to the hubs and running FS21 by July, which should provide an overall improvement in quality.

If you experience problems with Lockheed's service, please report it on the company's Web site.

May 4, 2007

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