Friday, July 29, 2005


Tact 101

Joanne Kansier is the director of the FAA’s Office of Competitive Outsourcing. She is responsible for managing the process that resulted in Flight Service being contracted out to Lockheed Martin. She recently stated that the transfer of FSS on October 4th would be a “tremendous victory for us all.”

It will certainly be a victory for Ms. Kansier, who no doubt stands to reap a substantial bonus for her efforts (a Freedom of Information Act request on the amount is anticipated). Pilots have no reason to claim victory until they can compare service before and after LM finishes the change-over (about 20 months from now). Taxpayer rejoicing would be premature given that the anticipated 10-year savings of 2.2 billion is already down to about 1.5 billion even before the contract goes into effect (not to mention costly add-ons coming down the pike). At least half the controllers will, of course, suffer substantial losses, and her statement has caused no small amount of rage out in the field.

Ms. Kansier can be reached at

Thursday, July 28, 2005


With a Tangled Skein: Part 2

Now let’s talk about those pilot response metrics that AOPA President Phil Boyer is fond of repeating, and let’s start with one overriding caveat; while one of his favorite phrases is “It’s in the contract,” Mr. Boyer doesn’t know what the contract actually says. He’s never seen it. No one has, outside of a small group in the FAA and the LM bid team. All Mr. Boyer can do is parrot whatever they tell him.

But let’s take the metric points (found here) one at a time.

1) “…pilots — the "customers" — must be satisfied with the ‘quality, timeliness, accuracy, customer service, and relevance of overall and specific services received.’” In case Mr. Boyer has forgotten AOPA’s own commissioned survey, pilots already are. You can find the survey here, but in a nutshell, pilots grouped by experience and qualifications are 80-90% satisfied with the quality and kinds of service provided by FSSs.

2) “[Phone] calls have to be answered within 20 seconds.” – While we don’t know exactly what the contract says, it’s safe to assume that either this is an average, or refers to a certain percentage of calls. Since no one knows the contract, we can’t be sure. But under either scenario, this metric as already largely met by existing FSSs.

One myth Mr. Boyer seems to have enjoyed creating is that pilots are routinely “…stuck on hold for 20 minutes trying to get a weather briefing…" The only place this might occur is when a pilot attempts to go into or out of the Washington D.C. ADIZ. The delay is not due to weather or equipment. Rather, security procedures required by the FAA and Homeland Defense make the process long and cumbersome. The remaining FSSs never experience such hold times, and may reach 5 minutes only under a combination of extreme circumstances.

One might also quibble with the phrase “have to be answered.” Does that mean actual contact with the controller who will provide the briefing, or entry into a service menu?

3) “…pilots are to receive service within 15 seconds of a radio call. Pireps must be processed within 30 seconds of receipt, 15 seconds if they are urgent.” I’m not sure how this is going to be possible to guarantee under the following common circumstances: multiple pilots call at once drowning each other out; improper call-ups that don’t include a frequency, location, or control facility trying to be reached. What if the In-flight specialist is coding a PIREP he just received and another call or two comes in? Does he finish the PIREP or service the pilot(s)? If the controller receives a second call prior to servicing a first call just received and tells the second one to ‘stand-by’, is the metric violated? Again, we must know what the contract says to determine how these circumstances will be dealt with.

4) “Flight service briefers must have "knowledge and skills specific to the flight plan areas that a given employee is servicing." In other words, they're supposed to know about unique local weather conditions, terrain, and airspace. They'll be tested.” Controllers already know these things and are tested. It is an insult for Mr. Boyer to suggest otherwise. What will be new is the loss of practical experience; how to interpret the effect of changing patterns on current conditions in a particular area. It takes a few seasons to gain an understanding of how all these things work together. This will be even more questionable if the controller’s three knowledge areas are not adjacent. Yet Mr. Boyer thinks he’ll have ‘experienced’ controllers skilled in dissimilar areas in a few months. This is a further indication that Mr. Boyer (and LM as well) simply does not understand the nature of this service. It’s not enough to know how to read a map or a weather report, which is what this metric (as stated) calls for.

These last two posts have been lengthy yet only begin to cover the topic of how things will change for pilots. These changes will not happen immediately, but there’s little doubt that Flight Service’s most important factor, the ability to interpret weather patterns, is going to be diluted.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


With a Tangled Skein: Part 1

(My answer to Garf on how FSS changes will affect pilots is a bit long. I’m going to split this into two posts)

I’ve covered Garf’s questions a bit on how staffing changes will affect the controllers. How will it affect the pilots? This is a more difficult question to answer, because no matter what the service question, the answer for now will always be the same: we don’t know. How Lockheed Martin will deliver services is still under seal, so we can only guess based on what they’ve told us about the controllers. It seems to be simply a matter of fate at this point.

Let’s take pre-flight calls. LM promises that calls will be routed to a briefer who’s familiar with the area in which the flight will take place. Currently, ‘area’ generally refers to the state that the FSS is in (for Flight Watch, the associated ARTCC airspace). What will the LM areas be? We don’t know. LM will have three geographical Service Areas, Western, Central and Eastern. The controllers have been told that they can becoming qualified in a maximum of three areas. This has lead to speculation that the ‘local areas’ are in fact one-third of the country each. A LM representative has been quoted to the effect that since all the information is built into the new data systems, learning these new areas will be real easy.

Let’s assume for a moment that all the above is true. The first thing that comes to mind is that there will be some ‘knowledge dilution’. Controllers will tell you that it takes some time to become familiar with regional weather patterns and effects. Imagine someone from Dayton, Ohio in short order suddenly becoming ‘experienced’ in Gulf States and New England weather phenomenon in different seasons. Neither pilot or controller should be comfortable with that.

Of course LM could be planning on a larger number of smaller areas. But the smaller the area, the more we can question the limit that each controller can know only three, as well as making it more difficult to meet the promised so-called ‘fast-answering’ metrics with less than half the workforce (more on this later).

The second thing that comes to mind (if the LM quote and assumptions are accurate) is that LM seems to believe that the FSS job is merely a matter of parroting data than tailoring information to pilots that takes into consideration changing weather conditions, inaccurate forecasts, etc. If so, the pilots become even less well-served by a controller work-force that does less for them.

AOPA president Phil Boyer has weighed in on how he expects FSS services to be vastly improved because of the new technologies and promised metrics for fast response to pre-flight and in-flight calls (you can see the full text of his comments here). Again, any of the five bidders for the contract would have accomplished this. But more importantly, Mr. Boyer can’t possibly be speaking from knowledge when he says these things.

Now I’m certain that LM showed Mr. Boyer some wonderful bells and whistles when they briefed him on the equipment they’ve created for FSS use, and there’s little doubt that what he saw is better than what most FSSs have now (aside from OASIS that is in a few stations). But this would be true of any of the five bidders. What we need to realize is that Mr. Boyer has no experience at all delivering air traffic services or using any such equipment to brief pilots. We should largely dismiss his “wow” comment as uninformed and inexpert.

Let us be clear; no Air Traffic Controller currently certified to provide flight services to pilots had input on the LM system or has seen it in action. In fact one could assert that Mr. Boyer saw little more than ‘vaporware’, an untested beta version of a system that has yet to be approved for use or even compatible with the current National Airspace System databases.

I’ll talk about the metrics in the next post.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


Another Wolf at the Door

Before I continue to answer Garf’s questions, I need to add a name to the ‘dramatis personae’…

If the FAA weren’t enough for Air Traffic Controllers to fight against, a surprising and strong voice has undercut Flight Service as well, and continues to do so; the president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), Mr. Phil Boyer. FSS exists to serve pilots, of course, and with over 400,000 members, AOPA is the largest pilot group in existence. When it comes to influence on issues in their sphere, they are right up there with the NRA and AARP. That the AOPA chose to press its own interests here is not at all surprising.

According to their official position on the A-76 process, what the AOPA cares most about is that the government provide free ATC services to pilots (no user fees). A secondary, but highly ranked, concern is that the FSS system be brought up-to-date in terms of technology.

Of course, any of the five bidders who might have won the contest would accomplish both these objectives. Yet Mr. Boyer is fighting tooth and nail against any move that might jeopardize Lockheed Martin’s position as the chosen provider. Why? Let’s assume that the FSS controller’s union, NAATS, is successful in getting the contract delayed or transferred to another bidder, presumably the MEO. How does this conflict with AOPA’s stated objectives? It doesn’t.

The first natural inclination is to assume that Mr. Boyer has some connection with LM; perhaps he or a relative is a shareholder. But Mr. Boyer attempted to rebuff that assertion here (although not very convincingly and with enough wiggle room to fit a 747; see the second to last paragraph). Maybe LM is, or has promised to be, a generous contributor to AOPA. Perhaps he has been expertly ‘stroked’ by the FAA, and the attention serves his ego. This would suit both sides. The FAA needs him; it is quite probable that should Mr. Boyer's have objected anywhere along the way, the politicians would have put a very fast stop to this process. And, as a side benefit to Mr. Boyer for his support of whatever the FAA does, they’ll include him in the ‘inner circle’ of decision-making (or so they would make it appear), giving him the opportunity to regale the AOPA membership with tales of his far-reaching influence.

Of course we can’t honestly say what is driving Mr. Boyer. We can only know that the basic question still exists…when it comes to the controllers trying to keep Flight Service in-house, what is the basis for Mr. Boyer’s exorcised objections? Why must Lockheed Martin get this contract and get it going on October 4th without fail? This is something only he can tell us, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for an honest answer.

Note: This blog’s first week may leave the impression that it’s meant to be little more than a ‘worker’s rant.’ That is not my intent and I apologize, but such has been the nature of events, and I’d like to examine things as they happen when possible. I’ll try to get back to the original purpose by continuing my answer to Garf with my next post.

Friday, July 22, 2005


Black Friday

Boxes of RIFs began arriving at the stations on Thursday. Starting today, and one at a time, Air Traffic Controllers are being called into offices and handed the documents that will cut short their careers. Every one of them. It was the final tangible nail in the coffin. Your position is abolished. You are fired.

Some shrug; they were going to retire anyway. Some accept it as a matter of expected course. Others seethe. Atmospheres range from subdued to on-edge. Acrimony renews. Blame is heaped on Bush, Blakey, and Russ Chew (ATC COO). A few aim their wrath at fellow controllers who vote Republican.

A couple weeks ago a controller at the Macon FSS took a break from position, went into the restroom, and fell, dead. He leaves behind a wife and two children. Stress related to this process? How will we ever know…

When the award to Lockheed Martin was announced, Russ Chew made remarks that can be read here. Is it any wonder that FSS controllers are cynical and angry when the COO calls them “top flight professionals” who have “earned my respect and…esteem”, yet refuses to place them in positions for which they are eligible so they can complete their careers, then hires inexperienced people off-the-street instead?

With such duplicity that can be found within those who run the FAA, does anyone think there will be any concern about pilots?


Tyson Bites

I've mentioned earlier the efforts this week to get the Senate's Transportation appropriations bill amended to delay the start of the FSS contract as the bill moved through committee. These efforts failed. Apparently a Republican sponsor could not be found in the sub-committee; Arlen Specter (R-PA) had earlier signaled a willingness to do so, but backed out. When the bill went to the full committee, no amendments of any kind were allowed.

While there is an opportunity for amendment in the full Senate when the bill comes to the floor, the chance of success is very slim.

A very black week indeed.

Thursday, July 21, 2005


On a Pale Horse

‘Garf’ runs a general aviation blog at (I’ve linked to it here and on the link list to the left – give it a look). He was kind enough to be my first comment contributor, asking some very good questions:

"So where is Lockheed Martin going to get the people to work FSS. Are they going to close down all the local FSS and just open a central station. Are any of the current FSS staff going to move over to Lockheed Martin?"
These might sound basic, but I believe Garf thinks he sees that there is more than meets the eye, and he would be right. I was going to address these questions at some time over the next few weeks. But since Garf asked, I’ll put them to the front of the list. Fair warning; there are lots of tangents and corollaries in the answers. It won’t be a quick explanation, so please bear with me as I divide the answers into digestible chunks.

First the straight-forward facts: On October 4th, Lockheed Martin will begin their operation at existing FSS locations staffed with existing Air Traffic Controllers. However, in the 18 months that will follow, LM will close 38 of the FSS stations in the lower 49 states, leaving 20 stations instead of the current 58. 17 of the existing stations will stay open and will be called ‘Legacy’ stations, but they will be open for business from 6am-10pm only. Three stations in Virginia, Texas, and Arizona will be re-built into super stations; these will be the only 24-hour facilities (see the ‘end-state’ list of stations here).

About 350 controllers from the 38 closing stations will be moved to one of the three new super stations; the rest will be fired. Those working at the 17 ‘Legacy’ stations will be employed for three years, perhaps more, but the language surrounding the offer contains a few caveats.

(Note that the state of Alaska is not in the contract, a testament to the political power of their Congressional delegation; Senator Stevens chairs the committee overseeing the Department of Transportation, while his House colleague, Representative Young, chairs the equivalent committee in that chamber. The FAA exempted Alaska from the onset so as to short-circuit any objection from these gentlemen...for now).

As the stations close and controllers are ‘let go’, a workforce of about 2200 will be pared down to 1000. I’d like to address the impact in four separate veins:

- the impact on the controllers.
- the implications for pilots
- what the law says the FAA should be doing (but isn’t), and
- how the A-76 process was ‘re-written’ to cover the FAA’s actions.

Let’s start with the controllers.

Every Flight Service controller (except those in Alaska, of course) is in the process of being fired by the government so they can be hired by LM. The tool being used is a ‘Reduction-in-Force,’ or RIF action, introduced because there will be no more FSS jobs in the government. As part of their contract bid, Lockheed Martin promised to hire all existing controllers, a fact loudly crowed by the FAA and LM. Actually there was real no choice. Where else was LM going to get the controllers they needed for the seamless transition required by the contract? And how could the FAA have a successful outsourcing if they didn’t deliver the bodies? But conveniently left out is the fact that over half of these ‘hired’ controllers will be forced out within 18 months.

Let’s divide the controllers into two groups; those who are eligible for retirement (about 40%), and those who are not. Those who can retire and are forced out will at least have an annuity. But those who are short of retirement eligibility will, in effect, lose it just as they are about to achieve it. There are hundreds of controllers who are anywhere from one day to a few years short of vesting after more than two decades of service. The time served will count for almost nothing in the end. Because they have been contributing to the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), these controllers will be in their late 40s and early 50s without Social Security, a pension, or a 401K.

Some have referred to this as an ‘Enron Effect,’ a retirement effectively yanked out from under one. Probably over 40% of the controllers fit into this group, and is never mentioned by the FAA. Privately, some LM personnel have expressed shock at how the controllers are being treated in this regard.

Why such a large number of controllers in this dilemma? Remember the PATCO strike in the early ’80. Most of the FSS personnel came on board during the hiring binge that followed. And a controller is eligible to retire after 25 years of service.

While this is only one controller impact, it is the most damaging.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


…and a Right-Cross to the Jaw!

While FSS controllers begin to stagger from the loss of the protest, the official Reduction-in-Force notices will start being presented to the controllers this week. This nasty one-two punch will send many reeling. Failure in the Senate would add a Tyson-like kiss on the ear. It’s a terrible thing to be told you’re not wanted; shoved out the door by your employer while he’s hiring the inexperienced off-the-street for jobs you want and are qualified to take.

So over the next few days, if the FSS controller you talk to seems a bit distracted or even angry, just remember that you’re probably talking to someone who has been given what might be called the proverbial ‘Enron Shaft,’ watching others crush their future while he or she stares at the carnage, with no recourse in sight. If you notice no change, chalk it up to the professionalism of the FSS crew.

The pilots, meanwhile, remain blissfully unaware…


A Left to the Gut…

It was learned today that the FSS controller’s protest against the A-76 award to Lockheed Martin failed. The judge, in effect, opined that the process was fair, or at least not tarnished enough to challenge the outcome. His decision was handed to FAA Administrator Blakey about three weeks ago, and her much-delayed decision was handed to the interested parties tonight. Details will percolate out over the next few days.

No doubt a general gloom will spread through the FSSs over the next 24 hours. There was a hope that the general dismemberment of the controller’s futures could have been at least delayed for a time, perhaps long enough for a few more to save their retirements, but that hope is fading fast. Yes, there is still the possibility of the one-year delay as mentioned below in ‘A Surprise in the House,’ but given how Blakey timed the announcement of the protest failure, my feeling is that she’s heard what she needs from the Senate; there won’t be enough support there to give the controllers and pilots a favorable outcome.


A Surprise in the House

On June 30th, Representative Bernie Sanders was successful in attaching an amendment to the Transportation funding bill on the House floor that would prohibit the FAA from spending any funds to outsource the nations Flight Service Stations. What this means is that Congress would have a chance to sit back and look at what the FAA hath wrought without their oversight. The surprise is how many Republicans (48) joined the Democrats in wanting to take a closer look at what is being done by an agency known for its traumatic failure in managing contracts.

Now the action moves to the Senate. A mark-up is expected this week in the Appropriations sub-committee that overlooks Transportation. From there it goes to full committee. If the 'year delay' language survives those two hurdles, it will face its toughest test in September when the House-Senate conference committee meets to iron out differences.

Resolutions favorable to Flight Service Stations and those who serve in or use them have been introduced before, but lost in conference. In 2003, the FAA Reauthorization bill passed the Senate, but with an amendment that would prohibit the outsourcing of ATC functions, including Flight Service. The favorable language was stripped out during the House-Senate conference.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


The Story So Far...

There are three ‘parts’ to the nation’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system; en-route centers (ARTCC), towers (ATCT), and flight service stations (FSS). In December of 2003, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced that the FSS prong of ATC and its 2200+ air traffic controllers would be contracted out via a process known as A-76 (this actually wasn’t a true A-76 contest, but that’s a story for another time).

Over the course of the following year, a contract was written up, and five interested bidders qualified as viable contestants. One of these was the FAA itself, paired with Harris Corporation, and known as the ‘Most Efficient Organization’ (MEO) in A-76-speak (every government entity bidding in such a contest to keep its own work in-house is referred to as the MEO). The other four were private corporations. The winner, announced on February 1st, 2005, was Lockheed Martin. The take-over was eventually set for October 4th, 2005. As of that date, FSS services will no longer be provided by the government, but by Lockheed Martin.

Every A-76 contest allows for a protest period, which is usually taken advantage of by one or more of the losers. Since this was the largest, most complicated non-defense outsourcing ever done, a protest by one of the losing parties was considered a foregone conclusion. The question was what would happen if the MEO lost? Would the FAA in effect protest its own decision? In the end, the FAA’s Vice President for FSS, Jim Washington, did file a protest. So did Kate Breen, President of the FSS controller’s union, the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS). This was a first; never before had employees been allowed to file their own protest. But that changed when the rules were revised in 2003 (more details can be found here). The Judge has since issued his opinion on the protest, which will remain under seal until Administrator Blakey declares her response and follow-up actions.

Upon the announcement of the award, NAATS also began lobbying on Capitol Hill for changes and delays, as well as pursuing legal challenges in the courts...

I’ve presented a rather sketchy version of events. Much detail has been left out, and as many questions may be created in the mind of the reader as answers that have been provided. Over the next week or two, I’ll touch on more of the specifics.

Monday, July 18, 2005


...and so it begins.

Welcome to my blog!

The first question a reader of a blog must have answered is, of course, ‘What is this all about?’ Quite simply, this will be my attempt to explain to the world, particularly those interested in all things to do with aviation, the dire straits in which the nation’s Flight Service Stations find themselves. It is a very involved story that has evolved over a relatively short period of time, with a looming end in early October of this year (2005).

My goal is not to bore the reader with long diatribes. Instead, with a mix of historical perspectives and daily events, bring the reader up to speed with what is happening with the FAA’s contracting out one of the three branches of Air Traffic Control (ATC), the Flight Service Stations (FSS).

Please bear with me, as this is my first attempt at this sort of thing. As with most every blog I already visit myself, feedback, comments and questions are appreciated. I can be e-mailed at

Now…Where to begin?

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