Thursday, February 14, 2008

Safety for Sale

Ever since I've been active in NATCA, the air traffic controllers union, there have been whispers that the outsourcing our jobs was inevitable. The Reason Foundation is a conservative think-tank that has been leading the charge to outsource the safety of the flying public to the lowest bidder. No one can argue the fact that this administration has run the FAA into the ground and it cannot continue to be managed in this fashion. Interestingly enough, the Reason Foundation's founder and transportation "specialist", Robert Poole was a Bush campaign adviser and present during the White House transition, a fact that cannot be lost as we seek out the means to pull the FAA out of the hole it's been digging. Privatization is certainly not the answer. Nor are any of the buzzwords, such as public-private partnership, managed competition, outsourcing or corporatization.

On February 1, 2005, FAA awarded a 5-year fixed-price, incentive-fee contract (with 5 additional option years) to Lockheed Martin to operate the Agency's flight service stations in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. On October 4, 2005, Lockheed Martin took over operations at the 58 flight service stations, and, on that date, approximately 1,900 specialists and additional support staff became employees of Lockheed Martin (DOT IG Report, October 2007). Lockheed Martin completed the agreed upon two-year transition period this past October. To date, LM has consolidated operations to three hub facilities and 15 stand-alone facilities.

Flight service stations provide general aviation pilots with aeronautical information such as pre- and in-flight weather briefings, flight planning assistance, and aeronautical notices (e.g., runway closures or temporary flight restrictions). In addition, while employees at flight service stations do not control air traffic, they can provide in-flight support to pilots who are lost or in need of assistance. Flight services are provided at no charge to users and are intended to help promote safe flight operations. However, most of the services provided are optional for pilots' use. Pilots may also obtain flight information using online services such as Direct User Access Terminal Service (known as DUATS), an automatic weather briefing and flight plan processing service that allows pilots to obtain weather data and file flight plans via personal computer.

The contractor gets paid by the Government to provide this service. The Government saves money because they pay the contractor less than it cost them to provide the same service. The contractor makes money by slashing personnel, compensation and benefits costs by lowering wages and consolidating services; bad bets for the flying public. Pilots and controllers have reported a significant drop off in service since October 2005. Long wait times, unfamiliar specialists, incomplete briefings and lost flight plans are the norm. I have personally some of the above. Just last week, I received closure information for an airport well outside of my airspace. This has never happened prior to the outsourcing. I've had numerous pilots call for flight plans that they claimed to have filed with flight service and were nowhere to be found. My peers have experienced aircraft that were issued clearances through flight service, were given instructions to "hold for release" because traffic was inbound to the same airport, only to have the aircraft depart!

An incident similar to the last one happened recently at a small uncontrolled field in North Carolina. The air traffic controller received a call from on flight service specialist in Raleigh Durham for a clearance on a Cessna (slow airplane). The controller could not issue the clearance at the time and had to call back. When he did so, apparently the understaffed station in Raleigh could not handled the call and it was rerouted to Leesburg, VA. The specialist in Leesburg knew nothing about this aircraft, but being the dutiful employee, took the clearance and went looking for the pilot to relay it to. When she could not locate the pilot, she called the controller back, who promptly cancelled the clearance. Moments later, the Raleigh specialist calls back with a second clearance request for a Lear jet (fast airplane). The controller issues the clearance and a release for the Lear. The flight service specialist asks, "What about the Cessna". After the controller explains how the clearance was issued but then cancelled, the flight service specialist responds, "I just issued the clearance – he should be rolling!!" The controller swiftly cancels the clearance for the Lear jet. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

This is a small airport with no air traffic controllers. The only way to release aircraft is one at a time (one in, one out as we say "in the business"), because we cannot be assured as to where the first aircraft is until we have them displayed on our radar and are in radio contact with them. Once they are safely in "radar contact" and we can move them out of the way, we release the following departure. In the case I described above, the air traffic controller saved a situation that was clearly headed for disaster. The mid-air collision that quite possibly would have occurred is squarely a result of the breakdown in communications due to a system overstressed by a greedy contractor and due to the outsourcing of a safety related function that is inherently governmental.

In 2005, Phil Boyer, head of AOPA and 65% of his membership supported the privatization of flight service stations, just so long as user fees were kept off the table. I wonder how those people feel about their vote today. I'm sure they are happy that flight services are free, but in corporate America, you get what you pay for. I wonder how long it takes before LM decides it's cheaper to operate a flight service call center in India or Iraq?

The FAA is on record calling this the safest five-year period in aviation history. Smoke and mirrors and the lack of a major catastrophe do not necessarily make this a safe era in aviation history, let alone the safest.


yeeeha said...

I was in Flight Service at the time it was contracted out and the silence from NATCA was deafening. Niemoller's quote is coming back to haunt you.

whizbang said...

Concur with the following exception: While it is true Mr. Poole was a Bush-Cheney campaing adviser, it is also true that he has been pushing for the privatization of air traffic control since the 1980's through multiple administrations, as an "expert" advisor to both Republican and Democratic administrations. Remove the partisanship, it remains the same.