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Privatizing flight service saved money, faces new challenges

The FAA mostly met its cost-cutting goals with the 2005 privatization of its flight service stations, but the program faces a future with declining demand in which safety and efficiency must be ensured, according to a Department of Transportation Inspector General’s report.

The Federal Aviation Administration is one of the many government agencies that have influence over general aviation. Photo by David Tulis.

Users have “no significant complaints” about the safety or quality of services they receive—a turnaround from a rocky initial transition to flight service privatization, the report said.

The expiration date of the original contract with Lockheed Martin, now Leidos, passed in September 2015, but the FAA granted the company options that could continue the current program through September 2019.

The Office of the Inspector General made three recommendations to the FAA to help develop its future approach to providing flight services, and the FAA has concurred, the report said.

The recommendations focus on communicating changes in services, delivery methods, and timetables to airspace users; developing a list of FAA orders and oversight processes that will require modification; and creating a working oversight framework before the next contract is awarded by competitive bidding.

The report, conducted as an audit between June 2015 and September 2016, credited the FAA with saving approximately $2.13 billion over 13 years by entering into the contract—about $59 million less than initially estimated.

One of the ways the agency achieved the savings, the report said, was making “multiple methods available” to pilots and other users to provide input on the program. Included in the methods was the regular solicitation of feedback from AOPA by both the FAA and Lockheed Martin, it said.

AOPA was “interviewed extensively” for the Inspector General’s report, which recognized the association’s advocacy during the development of the original outsourcing agreement, said Rune Duke, AOPA director of airspace and air traffic.

The flight service specialists who have briefed generations of pilots about weather conditions and handled their flight plans could largely become a thing of the past under the future Flight Service Program—a matter the Inspector General characterized as incompletely resolved, and about which AOPA has stated its significant concerns.

According to the report, “Increased use of Web-based and other digital applications has significantly reduced the demand for services that flight service specialists provide. Consequently, for the next contract, FAA is considering phasing out most specialists and relying more on Web-based and other means to deliver services... However, the Agency has not yet made a final decision regarding these changes or developed corresponding oversight of the contractor and services to reflect the potential changes.  As a result, FAA may not have appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure the safety and efficiency of this important program for pilots.”

AOPA Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger said a large-scale phase-out of specialists would not be justified.

“The removal of this safety critical position is not realistic given what we currently know and the additional questions that are not yet resolved that were identified jointly by the FAA and AOPA. There are significant safety and regulatory challenges that make this proposal problematic and that have failed to be addressed in prior studies by the FAA or over the past year of collaborative study,” she said.

User input—credited as having helped the FAA’s previous cost-savings effort—must play a significant future role as well, said Duke. AOPA will remain extensively involved in advocating for general aviation during the development of guiding principles for the next contract as part of a formal agreement with the FAA allowing the association to participate in discussions regarding future requirements.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with the FAA and other stakeholders as we evaluate future service changes," he said. "General aviation pilots rely on flight service for critical information, and our goal is to keep this important resource effective and accessible into the future."

Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: FAA Information and Services

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