The New Flight Service: An Insider's View

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ATIS

When one considers the dramatic evolution of aviation support facilities of the 1920s to present day Lockheed Martin Automated Flight Service Stations (AFSS), it is difficult to fathom how the job was ever accomplished. To give the reader a sense of the extremity of Lockheed Martin's undertaking of the government's largest contract with private industry, please consider the following facts: The government's $1.9 billion agreement with Lockheed Martin affected over 2,500 civil service employees; Lockheed Martin is hoping to meet the needs of the flying public with 18 flight service stations when less than 10 years ago more than 200 were utilized; and when technological changes occur within any industry -- especially computer software in an air traffic environment -- an adjustment period usually precedes the stage of normal operation.

According to AOPA, one of the most politically influential pilot organizations, many pilots have experienced safety-compromising problems ranging from extremely long hold times to inaccurate weather information. These problems are serious and deserve the attention of AOPA, FAA Administrator Marian Blakely and the aviation subcommittees in Congress, all of whom supported the privatization of the flight service system more than three years ago. The transition from government control to the private sector is one with obvious challenges and it is difficult to understand how supporters have quickly become turncoats -- criticizing Lockheed Martin when difficulties surface and taking malicious actions when they could continue to support the company and ease the transition.

Further complicating matters is a workforce of specialists who fought unsuccessfully to prevent the privatization of their careers with hopes of saving their government pensions. According to an age-discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of flight service specialists, 92 percent of the flight service workforce is over 40 years old. The lawsuit alleges that "... there is no reasonable factor other than the age of the workforce that is motivating this contracting-out decision." The only option for those specialists who hoped to maintain their pension was to find another federal job. The greatest challenge: Many flight service specialists (and air traffic controllers) have specialized skills, but are not formally educated beyond a high school diploma, making it difficult to transition into another government position.

An uncomfortable workforce that faces financial uncertainty coupled with the disgruntled flying public has made it very difficult to provide pilots with a needed service. It is important for pilots to afford flight service specialists with similar patience and graciousness once offered to them by their flight instructors. We are learning a new system that was forced on us as a result of decisions largely supported by pilot organizations and politicians under the pretense of the best interests of pilots in mind.

Lockheed Martin's flight service specialists have been widely criticized in publications, including AOPA's magazine and online blogs. Less publicized is the experience of the flight service specialist who has been transformed from content civil service employee to Lockheed Martin's "Complaint Department" representative. Rudeness, cursing and threats by pilots toward specialists who are merely trying to do their jobs is an unfortunate consequence of this transition. It would behoove pilots to be courteous to specialists and understanding of our situation. Ways to assist and enhance your service include providing the three-letter identifiers for airports and navaids, using geographical reference points, and directing your complaints and comments to Lockheed Martin's management. Other helpful tips include knowing your Zulu (UTC) times, your proper aircraft identifier, and the flight-plan format.


More opinion pieces from guests and AVweb staffers can be found on the ATIS index.