At AOPA's urging, Congress this week directed the FAA to ensure that pilots continue to get the best possible flight briefing and en route information services without user fees. The committee that holds the agency's purse strings told the FAA to have specific, comprehensive customer service standards for maintaining the quality of pilot briefings.
AOPA's legislative affairs staff worked with the House Appropriations Committee to add the FSS service directive to the report accompanying next year's funding bill for the FAA. The bill has been approved by the committee and now goes to the full House and Senate.
"This guidance from Congress is a very pointed reminder to the agency that pilots need a high level of service, whether the briefers work directly for the government or indirectly through a contractor," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. " Flight service station functions are safety-of-flight issues, and pilot service and safety can't be shortchanged. Just like inbound call centers used by businesses, the government's flight service stations must have metrics for on-hold times, abandon rates, and time to answer calls from pilots."
The issue is important because the FAA is currently conducting a so-called "A-76" study to determine whether it should contract out some FSS functions, much as it does already with the DUAT service. (See AOPA President Phil Boyer's editorial, " Modernizing flight service.")
The congressional report says, "In order to maintain a high level of safety and efficiency in the provision of flight service activities, the Committee urges FAA to ensure that the flight service station competitive sourcing effort require bidders to provide comprehensive and specific customer service standards for providing flight briefings to pilots as well as a process for ongoing customer service monitoring and evaluation."
"That's really more than a suggestion," explained Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of Government and Technical Affairs. "When the people who write the checks tell a government agency to do something, the bureaucrats usually pay attention."
This week was the deadline for bids to outsource the FSS system. The bidders include aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. While some think this process always leads to contracting out the government service, that's not true.
The FAA itself, in partnership with FSS equipment manufacturer Harris Corporation, is also in the bidding. It's making its own business case that the FAA is the most efficient organization (MEO) to run flight services. In most other A-76 studies, the government agency, or MEO, continues to provide the service. But no previous A-76 process has been for something as big as the flight service system, which costs some $550 million a year to run.
AOPA has been part of the A-76 process from the beginning to make sure pilots have a voice in the outcome. For example, the association's technical staff had significant input in describing the services pilots need from FSS. (See " AOPA to protect pilots' interests in FSS study.")
And AOPA will have a voice in the performance standards that the future FSS will have to meet whether the service is provided by government employees or contractors.
"Rest assured, as both a heavy user of FSS for more than three decades, and as I lead your association in addressing this change, pilot needs and a government-funded service, without user fees, will be of utmost importance," said Boyer.
August 6, 2004