We finally have their attention. After weeks of persistent effort by AOPA, the top levels of both the FAA and Lockheed Martin are now engaged and committed to fixing the significant problems pilots are experiencing with the new flight service station (FSS) system.
"I spent nearly an hour on the phone with FAA Administrator Marion Blakey on Sunday (May 13), and then again with her and her deputy on Monday," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "I have their pledge that they will do whatever it takes to ensure pilots get the safety of flight information that they need and deserve.
"We are pleased that the administrator and Deputy Administrator Bobby Sturgell are now personally engaged in fixing this problem, and I also want to acknowledge all of the air traffic controllers who've helped pick up the slack by reentering lost flight plan information," said Boyer.
"That said, I have great difficulty understanding why it has taken so long for those FAA employees responsible for the Lockheed Martin contract to address a safety of flight issue," Boyer said. "As I asked the administrator Sunday, would the FAA allow a radar outage at a busy hub airport to continue for three weeks with no corrective action?"
As most pilots know, the FAA has contracted flight service station operations to Lockheed Martin, which is modernizing the entire system and consolidating all FSSs into three hubs and 17 satellite facilities.
And while some teething pains could be expected during such a radical transformation of an antiquated system, the problems have deteriorated recently from inconvenient to dangerous.
From the pilot's perspective, things really started falling apart at the end of April. That's when Lockheed Martin declared its three hubs operational and began aggressively consolidating the old FAA stations at the rate of three a week. And it coincided with the first stretch of good East Coast flying weather since winter.
But the company had fired up its new computerized FS21 (twenty-first century) system knowing that it had some 90 known deficiencies that required "work-arounds." That meant briefers had to use both the new Lockheed computer system and the old FAA system to gather all the required information to brief pilots and to file flight plans.
Pilot complaints have become legion. Hold times are excessive. Pilots who had been on hold for 20 or 30 minutes will sometimes find their call inexplicably dropped. Flight plans aren't filed into the system. Pilots are routed to briefers who don't know the local area and can't find information specific to the pilot's route of flight.
Airport managers can't file notams to alert pilots to runway closures or lighting outages.
Scores of pilots told AOPA that they can't raise flight service on the radio to get updated weather information or to open or close a flight plan.
In the last two weeks, the system crashed three times, with the longest outage lasting more than an hour.
AOPA called two high-level meetings with Lockheed Martin officials on May 3 and 8 to detail the problems and demand immediate corrective action. And AOPA has been in almost daily contact with responsible FAA officials to make sure they understand the severity of the flight service station problems.
And while promises were made, the service continued to deteriorate.
Then on Friday, May 11, Boyer went straight to the top and asked FAA Administrator Blakey to hold Lockheed Martin's "feet to the fire to not only fix these serious flight service problems, but also offer immediate remedies to solve the safety of flight issues."
The following Monday, Blakey called in senior Lockheed Martin mangers. They promised a new set of initiatives to fix the problems, including new software updates for the FS21 system, fixing the automated phone switch, offering temporary positions to retired flight service specialists, "surge" staffing to cover peak workload periods, more staff training, and better communication to the pilot community.
"All well and good," said Boyer, "but they're not anywhere close yet to the service levels that Lockheed Martin has contracted to provide. And we're not just interested in national averages for time to answer a call or call abandon rate. If any pilot anywhere can't get his call answered, or can't get needed information, or has his flight plan go missing, we're not getting what we're paying for.
"But I believe that both the FAA and Lockheed Martin understand this. And I know that the FAA is honestly concerned, and will work with AOPA and Lockheed to make things right," said Boyer.
May 15, 2007