Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Metric Madness

The much ballyhooed metrics surrounding the Lockheed contract are starting to go into force, and the actual applications are approaching the absurd.

Example 1 – If an in-fight pilot call is not answered in 5 seconds, no matter what the reason, it’s a failure. Thus, if aircraft A calls while the controller is giving a clearance to aircraft B, and aircraft A is not answered in 5 seconds, it counts as a violation of the metric. The only way to avoid this failure is to stop giving B the clearance in mid-sentence, tell A to stand-by, then complete the clearance to aircraft B. If you think there might be a possible safety problem in such a scenario you’re in good company.

Example 2 – It was promised that flight plans would be filed within 3 minutes. Turns out the clock starts when the pilot states that he wants to file a flight plan. Quite often, though, pilots ask for information in the middle of giving their plan, like winds aloft, radar information, or even NAVAID or airport identifiers. It also is not unusual for a pilot to be creating the flight plan as he goes along. If any of these actions by the pilot causes the filing time to extend beyond three minutes, it is also a violation.

This apparently is the interpretation of the FAA. Why such silliness? There are a couple possibilities. One is that the FAA will try their level best to avoid paying Lockheed any of the bonus money for meeting metrics, so the hurdles are being set imaginatively high. A second is that the contract, still under seal, is actually written this way. Lockheed apparently wants to see what kind of data is collected over the next few months, and will then try and renegotiate some concessions on the metrics from the FAA. Good luck…

Time to start asking Mr. Boyer if this is what he was told regarding these wonderful metrics.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


The Future of Contracting

We’ve mentioned before that contracting out of air traffic control (ATC) will not stop with Flight Service Stations. Within the next two or three years, expect the same to happen with level 5 towers, followed by the busier facilities.

Up until now the FAA has had political difficulties when trying this. When the seven-year FAA Re-authorization bill was debated in 2003, 69 level 5, 6, and 7 towers had been identified as targets for contracts. Some of these served fairly high-profile airports, like Boeing Field (BFI).

This was too much for many politicians to swallow, and a promise ‘not to do that’ for a couple years was placed in the bill. Much of the heat came from the AOPA , who has been committed to the fight against further contracting of towers and centers, and NATCA, the union for the controllers working in the towers, TRACONs, and en-route centers. To break this wall of opposition, the FAA appears to have adopted a more incremental approach in support of their efforts, and we expect that there will be three support ‘pillars’ to their argument, some established, another to be developed:

1) The successful contracting of Flight Service.
2) The proven safety of existing contract towers.
3) Successful contracting of the next level of towers.
Item 1 has largely been accomplished in a PR fashion; all that remains is to create an aura of undeniable, measurable success around the project. Currently, this might be easy, but increased operational errors, reduced controller experience, or delays in delivering promised technology may result in higher levels of pilot dissatisfaction (and with satisfaction rates of 90%, there’s more room for frowns than smiles).

Item 3 is in the future. But unless the AOPA wakes from its tactical slumber, we don’t see significant resistance to contracting of level 5 towers. After the level 5s are gone, it makes it much easier to follow with the level 6s, and so on. Once the pattern is established, where and how will AOPA (and NATCA for that matter) be logically able to object?

That leaves item 2, and has the potential to be a great untold story. We view it as the key in the battle to come.

Monday, October 10, 2005



Lockheed Martin and the AOPA have been bragging regularly about how the new FS21 system technology will enhance the services AFSS provide. Originally, installation of this upgrade was supposed to begin next spring. Now we hear that the timeline has been pushed back a few months. We are not surprised; it is always dangerous to contract an unseen, untried system. Upgrades are now expected to begin mid-summer or next fall.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


“…the familiar voices…

…giving your preflight weather briefings will stay the same.” Or so promised Mr. Phil Boyer when discussing Flight Service change-over from the FAA to Lockheed Martin.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, and stories keep popping up about dissatisfied pilots not reaching the facility they’ve always used. We’ve mentioned many times how pilots will not be pleased over losing contact with those most familiar with their local area. That prediction has now become reality due to Lockheed’s National Offloading Contingency Plan, first mentioned here on 10/1.

'The Plan' is an attempt to even out call loads among the facilities. Here’s a sample of how it works; McMinnville, Oregon (MMV) is transferring 50% of their calls from area code 541 to Boise, ID (BOI). BOI, in turn, is shipping all of their calls from area code 208; 40% go to Great Falls, MT (GTF), 60% to Casper, WY (CPR). CPR, in turn, sends 50% of area code 307 to Denver (DEN).

That’s a lot of pilots not hearing those “familiar voices.” Many are ‘working around’ The Plan by asking for the direct 866 number to their ‘home’ station. This is a hole on the Lockheed offloading plan for the next 6 months to a year; pilot’s can defeat it by directly dialing the station they want. It seems they’d rather be on hold than talk to a briefer from another state about their local conditions and forecast. A pity that they’ll have no choice in 6 to 18 months; MMV, BOI, GTF, and CPR are all slated to close. That’s four states without a local Flight Service Station presence.

We hope the pilots that are displeased with this form of ‘progress’ are giving AOPA an earful (members and non-members can call them at 800-872-2672). While your at it, please give your Senators and Congressmen a call as well. Mr. Boyer certainly won’t tell them that you’re unhappy with his favorite contract.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Faxing Senator Tim Johnson.

Tim Johnson is a Senator from South Dakota. He has originated an amendment to the Transportation-Treasury-Housing bill (HR 3058) that would delay the contract; it has been co-signed by a few other Senators. Successful passage could possibly void the award. Word is that Mr. Johnson is getting cold feet on offering the amendment.

We controllers are asking all pilots (everyone, actually) to contact Mr. Johnson’s office this weekend in support of this amendment. Then contact your own Senators as well.

Mr. Johnson’s web site is here. Contact information is as follows:

Washington Office:
136 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Phone (202) 224-5842
TDD (202) 224-8279 Fax (202) 228-5765


If You’re a Pilot…

…include your Senators or Congressman when voicing your complaints about the new AFSS system (contact information here and here). Calls to Lockheed Martin, the FAA or AOPA will likely be buried or at least not talked about publicly.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Whither the staffing?

A basic question: how many AFSS controllers were there when the contract was announced on February 1st compared to how many remained on October 4th when Lockheed took over? Lockheed will probably knows by now or Monday. That may seem like a bit of a delay, but a few controllers didn’t have to report in for their first shift until as late as the 7th, and some of those might have decided not to show up and simply stay retired.

A couple controllers have reported their numbers independently, though:

- Bangor, ME 29 (2/1) / 16 (10/4)
- Burlington, VT 33 / 13
- Princeton, MN 43 / 39

It should be noted that Princeton is a Legacy facility (not to be closed) while Bangor and Burlington will be shut down within 18 months.

We will re-visit the numbers as they become available.

It should be noted that few, if any, controllers were on leave this week. Part of the deal for signing up with Lockheed was to report on October 4th or your first scheduled day back. As people get back to taking their time off, the situation will change, but it’s certain that the facilities were ‘ultimate staffed’ this week.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


First Impressions

Pilot complaints about the new system were heard on the first day. In our facility, they were very displeased with Lockheed’s Offloading Contingency Plan that ships calls from some stations to others (we wonder if the AOPA is getting calls from these pilots, or even if they would acknowledge them if they did). These pilots asked for and received the direct 866 number to their ‘home’ station.

This is a possible hole on the Lockheed offloading plan for the next 6 months to a year; pilots can defeat it by directly dialing the station they want.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


It’s the End of the World As We Know It.

As of 12:01am this morning, Flight Services is longer with the FAA, but now under the management of Lockheed Martin. Not a happy day at all for those of us who provide the services to pilots every day. Technology is not what makes the system work, but the controllers themselves with their experience, knowledge, and dedication to aviation safety. New web sites or bells and whistles accomplish nothing without the people that work with them. We’ve been run over in a bad way, and can only hope that sometime in the future, corrections will be forthcoming.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Marion’s Poodles – Act 5

As the clock is ticking down to the end of federally run Flight Service stations, AOPA President Phil Boyer has continued his uncritical cheerleading of the contract. His last missive is dated September 22 and is not surprising; he repeats the same old misleading information as well as presenting some new contradictions.

We’ve decided to break with our blogging tradition and respond to Mr. Boyer point-by-point on the highlights of his article. New readers might want to peruse the following earlier posts, since much of Mr. Boyer’s flawed observations are dealt with there first:

- With a Tangled Skein (parts 1 and 2) – 7/26, 28
- A Damning Report – 8/3
- Mythical Metrics – 8/11
- The Breaking Dawn – 8/13
- The Coming Lockheed-AOPA Conflict – 8/15
- Rude Awakening – 10/1

The ‘Marion’s Poodles’ series makes for good background as well.

"AOPA has been in virtually constant discussions with Lockheed Martin as it
moves toward the initial FSS transition on October 4," said AOPA President
Phil Boyer.
It’s too bad neither AOPA or Lockheed ever spoke to the controllers, and we never understood why not. Mr. Boyer constantly said that the FAA had mismanaged Flight Service into the ground while praising the professionalism of the controllers. We could have given them lots of useful assistance if only they would have consented to talk, but for some reason they didn’t want to…

"We want to ensure that there will be no service glitches for pilots."

About 1,900 of the current 2,000 FSS employees have accepted job offers from Lockheed Martin...

Here Mr. Boyer departs from his previous orthodoxy. He last stated that 600 AFSS employees would be gone by the changeover date, leaving only 1,400 controllers in the service (1600 by our count, using a base of 2200). This new position places him at odds with Lockheed, whose call offloading plan bemoans the “decimated” staffing of Flight Service. We can’t help wondering about the effectiveness (or even existence) of those “constant discussions with Lockheed” that Mr. Boyer keeps bragging about.

... which means that even the familiar voices giving your preflight weather briefings will stay the same.

If you obtain a preflight briefing on October 3 and another one the next day,
there will be no difference. The same specialists, at the same locations, at the
same phone numbers and radio frequencies will be providing the same services as
today — only as Lockheed employees.

Lockheed’s call offloading contingency plan (mentioned Friday) that will be implemented on Tuesday tells a different story. Calls from many area codes will be transferred partially or totally to other stations. If a pilot’s ‘home’ station has longer hold times, they will find themselves talking to controllers at other facilities. Some pilots are already facing this situation. Again, if Mr. Boyer is in constant contact and discussion with Lockheed, why doesn't he already have this information?

But the consolidation of these facilities should not impact the level of service pilots receive.
Mr. Boyer has no possible way of knowing this.

Lockheed has a 60-day transition plan in place, which includes a 30-day gradual transition of some employees to the new facilities and 30 days of overlapping services from the new and previous locations.
The Lockheed Contingency plan is based on the conclusion that staffing is already too thin, and doesn’t even account for a number of retirement-eligible controllers that have signed up with Lockheed but have stated that they simply will not show up on October 4th. These two factors leave no room for overlap.

"AOPA asked for aggressive performance requirements to ensure that your telephone and radio calls to FSS would be answered quickly," Boyer said. "Lockheed must meet these customer service standards, so you should notice improved service as the FS21 technology is integrated."
As we’ve pointed out before, this was a pre-determined part and of the original A-76 concept. AOPA’s “asking” was a non-sequitor, akin to a witch doctor asking the sun to rise.

After the 18-month transition is complete, pilots' telephone calls must be answered within 20 seconds and radio calls within 15 seconds . Flight plans must be processed in three minutes, and pireps must be processed within 30 seconds of receipt, 15 seconds if they are urgent.
We wonder if there’s a typo in there…we were under the impression that the contract called for radio calls to be answered in 5 seconds. But then, no one who has written about the contract has actually seen it.

As to the rest, see our posts ‘Mythical Metrics’ and ‘With a Tangled Skein: Part 2’ for a dissection of this claim.

And an annual customer satisfaction survey will be conducted so that Lockheed can make sure you are getting the best service possible.

Pilots, depending on group and survey, are already 80-90% satisfied with current services (see our post ‘With a Tangled Skein: Part 2'. We have no doubt that Mr. Boyer will crow loudly as some evidence of success any subsequent survey showing 75% or more satisfaction.

It is estimated that Lockheed's 10-year contract will actually save the government about $2.2 billion.
Calculated savings are already down to a maximum of $1.7 billion, and as low as $1.2 billion according to the GAO (see ‘A Damning Report’). These revised numbers were public knowledge long before his article was written. Mr. Boyer has no excuse for not knowing about this.

Count on costs to go higher as well. Lockheed’s contingency plan calls for the possibility of additional controllers, exceeding the original target of 1000. The FAA continues to ask Lockheed for contract additions. These are always much more expensive than if they are contained in the initial contract and will reduce projected savings further and faster.

Another GAO report shows that these savings do nothing to allay the possibility of user fees or other privatization that AOPA opposes (see ‘The Breaking Dawn’).
To allow briefers to devote even more time to serving you, whether you are on the ground or in the air, Lockheed has discontinued some services that do not pertain to GA briefings. For example, FSS will no longer have to respond to media requests for historic weather data; it will no longer coordinate the military's ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) flight information; and it will no longer provide information from aviation publications to nonpilots.
"Lockheed discontinued only the nonpilot services that FSS had been providing," Boyer said. "Pilot services, like distributing notams, will continue as before."
These are meaningless statements. How many of the 2200 controllers affected by this contract have actually done any of the discontinued services in Mr. Boyer's list, let alone on a daily basis? We’ve never done any of these things, although a few controllers may very well have on occasion. But to assert that the above activities, even when done, constitute any reason for long hold times is absurd. Quite frankly, Mr. Boyer is making it up; he has no idea how much time is actually spent doing these things.

NOTAMs are part of a standard brief, part of the 7110.10 rules that any contractor would have had to comply with. Of course they will continue.

And let’s be honest; aviation information can still be received by non-pilots; all they have to do is make the pretense of being a pilot, something very easy to do (for example, make up a call sign or claim ‘rental’ status).

Mr. Boyer does, however, gloss over the fact that some services, while not time consuming, will be missed. Instructors calling to check up on the progress of their students will be turned away. Real pilots may be surprised to learn that they as well will be denied some published information.

Our position remains unchanged since our posts listed at the top of this one; that pilot contacts are likely to be longer due to 'cover your rear' concerns, and with a slashed workforce of diluted expertise and promised metrics (not yet fully revealed), Mr. Boyer’s dream of cheap, fast, personal, local, expert service is not likely to be realized. One or more of those will have to give.


Muscle Flexing

We understand that one Flight Service station had a somewhat unusually long hold time for pre-flight services on Friday. One or more of the pilots in the queue apparently called the AOPA, taking to heart President Phil Boyer’s admonition that he could contact the right people to straighten things out post haste!

Mr. Boyer (or at least someone in his organization), eager to throw some weight around, indeed called Lockheed Martin who in turn called the Flight Service in question demanding an explanation. All this in spite of the fact Lockheed doesn’t take over until next Tuesday.

We do like to keep things on the diplomatic side, but can’t help thinking of a few choice words had we answered the phone.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Rude Awakening

Lockheed Martin has distributed a National Offloading Contingency Plan to all Flight Service stations. What it contains is illuminating. Not because of any surprise to the controllers (on the contrary, it’s quite old news of the kind we’ve talked about in this blog), but what it reveals about Lockheed’s knowledge of the service it will soon inherit. The root of the problem can be found in the plan’s introduction:

“…[AFSS] staffing has been decimated by the FAA as a result of their desire to allow as [sic] many Flight Service specialists to “bid out”, transfer, IPP [internal placement program], retire or simply quit.”
Gee…the FAA did “allow” controllers to “retire or simply quit.” Exactly what did Lockheed expect? Recalcitrant workers chained to their positions, forbidden to leave? Pardon our sarcasm, but the above statement not only stretches credulity, but shows an total lack of preparation (even denial or naiveté) on personnel issues for the 10/4 takeover. What did the FAA say that led Lockheed to believe that they would inherit a passel of stations staffed to the gills with willing workers just waiting to be fired or have their retirement benefits yanked out from under them? Hasn’t anyone from Lockheed read the NAATS legal pleadings or web site (or even this blog)? Time after time over the summer it was explained to Lockheed representatives visiting the stations that hundreds of controllers were doing everything they could to find other work in the federal government.

We dearly hope (and that it can be subsequently proven) the FAA promised or otherwise implied to Lockheed that they would deliver the workforce needed to fulfill the contract. Here’s why:

We’ve mentioned 3350.2c, the FAA directive that sets the ground rules for a Reduction in Force (RIF) caused by a contracting-out such as that now experienced by the Flight Service controllers. Let’s take a look at a very relevant section:


a. When the number of employees in any organization or occupation must be reduced, management shall make every reasonable effort to place surplus employees in other jobs or regions of the agency with the least possible interruption to their careers and personal lives.

b. Separation of employees by RIF shall take place only after all reasonable alternative actions have failed to solve the surplus problem. The RIF procedure shall be conducted in a fair and equitable manner without regard to race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital status, political affiliation, physical handicap, participation or non-participation in a labor organization, personal favoritism, or sexual orientation. When conducting a RIF, the provisions of this order shall be used, in conjunction with, FPM Supplement 351-1, Reduction in Force, Departmental guidance, and union agreements, if applicable.

c. Some of the alternatives to conducting a RIF are: attrition, hiring freeze, promotion freeze, separation of employees on time-limited appointments and other noncompeting employees; reimbursable details, encouragement of voluntary LWOP or change from full-time to part-time work schedule, or furlough rather than separation (only if it is likely that the employee can be recalled to work within a year).
The meaning is so simple we wonder how Lockheed missed it: The FAA’s first responsibility is not to keep the workforce in place for the contractor, but to do everything reasonable (up to and including a "hiring freeze") to make sure the workforce is not dislocated from the FAA. Not only must the FAA “…allow…specialists to ‘bid out’, transfer, IPP…”, the FAA is required by law to make sure these things happen. Truth be told, the opposite has actually occurred and Lockheed is getting a bigger workforce than they should, but that’s another topic for another day.

Upshot: If it can be shown that the FAA told Lockheed Martin that they would deliver an in-place workforce, or the FAA otherwise did not follow directive 3350.2c, the law has been broken. We’ve said before that a lawsuit in this matter is anticipated. The Lockheed statement in their contingency plan is another bit of evidence in support of such a suit. The desired outcome of a favorable ruling could range from enhanced or required employment opportunities for controllers shepherded to Lockheed, up to and including monetary damages to make up for lost benefits.

Oh…one other detail…since “staffing has been decimated,” what does this mean for AOPA President Phil Boyer’s vision of seamless continuity? We’ll cover that delicious topic in short order.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?