The Federal Aviation Administration this week awarded Lockheed Martin the contract to modernize the flight service station (FSS) system, which provides pilots with the weather information they need to fly safely. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the contract means that the FSS system will finally be brought into the 21st century, while reining in the cost to operate it. The FAA estimates the new contract will save the agency $2.2 billion over 10 years.
Under the current system, flight service station specialists labor with old equipment and early computers designed in the 1970s and that have become increasingly costly to operate and maintain. According to the FAA, the agency spent $500 million dollars on the flight service station system in 2003 alone.
"Let's be absolutely clear about this. Flight Services have not been privatized," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Lockheed Martin does not own Flight Service. It has been outsourced to this major aviation company. Lockheed Martin is being paid by the FAA to provide the service. The federal government still has ultimate responsibility for and authority over preflight and in-flight weather briefings."
For pilots, today's announcement means three things: The federal government will continue to provide preflight and in-flight weather briefing services using FAA-certified, non-government, contract employees; Lockheed Martin will have to consistently meet high performance and customer satisfaction standards to retain the contract - something that is not currently required of the existing automated flight service station system; and pilots will not have to pay user fees for the duration of the contract, which is five years with an option for five more.
Pilots will likely lose the ability to get a walk-in briefing, but in multiple surveys of its members, AOPA has determined that fewer than two percent currently use face-to-face briefings as their primary way of getting weather information. In addition, the current 58 flight service stations in the lower 48 states, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico will be consolidated to 20. (Because of the unique nature of aviation in Alaska, the three flight service stations in that state were not included in the competitive outsourcing study.)
Exact details of the contract are not yet known, because following today's announcement the four companies that did not win the contract have 15 days to challenge the decision, after which the FAA could take up to 90 days to address the protests.
What pilots gain are specific performance requirements, such as: phone calls answered by a live briefer within 20 seconds; radio calls acknowledged within five seconds and requested information delivered to the pilot within 15 seconds; urgent pilot weather reports entered into the system within 15 seconds and regular pilot weather reports within 30 seconds; and flight plans entered into the system within 3 minutes of the request to file. In addition, Lockheed Martin will be required to perform customer satisfaction surveys.
Most of these highly specific performance measures are the direct result of AOPA being involved in the A-76 process. Because general aviation is the primary beneficiary of the services flight service stations provide, AOPA asked for - and got - a "seat at the table" even before the process formally began.
"It was absolutely vital that the government officials who would be reviewing flight service stations understand the needs of general aviation," said Boyer.
When AOPA first learned that the FAA was considering the competitive outsourcing review, the Association offered its expertise to make sure that government policymakers fully understand the consequences of their decisions on the primary users of flight service stations - general aviation pilots.
"AOPA has a mandate from its members to oppose any government attempts to impose user fees for access to or information from the national aviation system," said Boyer.
To keep that mandate, AOPA found itself at odds with an FAA employees' union, in this case the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists. Historically, the needs of pilots and the needs of controllers have usually been similar. In this case, however, AOPA's mission to protect the interests of general aviation pilots and aircraft owners, specifically unfettered access to preflight and in-flight planning services free from user fees, was at odds with the union's concerns about potential job losses.
"At last October's AOPA Expo in Long Beach, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey reiterated - in no uncertain terms - that the FAA does not endorse user fees," Boyer added. "Lockheed Martin's contract with the FAA does not permit user fees, meaning that, for at least the life of this contract, direct fees for flight service station services are off the table."
AOPA plans to meet with Lockheed Martin in the next few days. Prior to today's awarding of the contract, AOPA had contacted all five organizations. Each, including Lockheed Martin, expressed a strong desire to make sure that their proposal fulfills general aviation's requirements.
Once the challenge-and-response period is over, which could take 90 days or more, Lockheed Martin will have three years to fully implement the new, modernized flight service system.
With more than 403,000 members, AOPA is the world's largest civil aviation organization. Its member-mandated goals include keeping general aviation affordable by fighting to prevent government user fees. Providing member services that range from representation at the federal, state, and local levels to legal services, advice, and other assistance, AOPA has built a service organization that far exceeds any other in the aviation community.
February 2, 2005