FAA Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) Program
Automating Online Weather Information Technology
HEADLINE NEWS: The OIG concluded an audit of an FAA program and made positive conclusions:
“FAA has achieved most of the anticipated cost savings from contracting out flight services operations. It has saved approximately $2.13 billion over 13 years—$59 million less than the initial estimate. FAA achieved the savings through reorganization of flight service operations and facility and equipment modernization, including service station consolidation and reduced staffing levels. FAA has also implemented effective controls for oversight of Lockheed Martin and flight services, including 22 measures that evaluate Lockheed Martin’s performance. FAA also has several oversight mechanisms that monitor the program’s safety and operations. Lastly, pilots and other users have multiple methods available to them to provide input on the program.”
There was a time when a pilot, particularly GA drivers, would walk across the ramp and talk to an FSS specialist. Those dialogues were informative and instructive; no doubt that the questions asked and answers given contributed to aviation safety. The number of FSSs contributed to its being identified as a potential source for significant cost savings.
Eventually the trend to reduce government spending led to consolidating and automating of this transmission of flight plans to the FAA and of the WX information to pilots. There were several battles over AFSS implementation, but as the OIG commented, it saves taxpayers of $2.13 billion.
AOPA, which represents the major segment of AFSS users, highlighted the OIG’s comment that “[u]sers have ‘no significant complaint’” about the safety or quality of services they receive—a turnaround from a rocky initial transition to flight service privatization…” The association’s website mentioned that ‘AOPA was ‘interviewed extensively’ for the Inspector General’s report, which recognized the association’s advocacy during the development of the original outsourcing agreement’”, Rune Duke, AOPA director of airspace and air traffic.
The OIG report noted that the original AFSS contract, was awarded to Lockheed Martin, but now is resident with Leidos. The current program has been extended through 2019 and the OIG commented on the future of the AFSS service:
“Increased use of Web-based applications has significantly reduced the demand for services from flight service specialists, and consequently, FAA is considering phasing out most specialists and relying on the internet to deliver services. However, FAA has not yet decided what changes it will make to the program or developed a corresponding oversight approach for the contractor and services, and as a result, may not have the appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure the program’s safety and efficiency.”
That comment got the attention of AOPA and may portend a repeat the conflict over the initial AFSS program in which the GA pilots were skeptical of an “unmanned” FSS. Here is the current AOPA concerns:
“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.’”
Leidos believes that it is already providing the services of tomorrow, such as:
- Adverse Condition Alerting Service
- Surveillance-Enhanced Search and Rescue
- Next Generation Briefings
Private sector alternatives have been developing services. In response thereto, the FAA has issued Aviation Weather Services, Advisory Circular 00-45G CHG 2, which describes (for 59 pages) how pilots can/should use available AWS. The National Weather Service has issued a list of Commercial Weather Providers Serving the US.
The existence of these options began about 1950 in response to a growing demand for specialized, “value-added content.” A report explained that although the demand was initially met by government, noted WeatherBank Inc. President and Chief Executive Steve Root, who is also president of the American Weather and Climate Industry Association. Recent technological advances present significant expansion opportunities. “’While only government has the means to build and operate a vast weather infrastructure of satellites and radar,’ Root says, ‘There are things that private industry does that it can do faster, quicker, sweeter, better than government.’ The North American weather enterprise produces content unrivaled elsewhere in the world, adds Root.”
For example, Sirius XM advertises its aviation service heavily and provides real time information to GA cockpits. The industry is growing and the number/types of services are expanding. The availability and increasing reliability/accuracy of these new WX information sources should complicate the FAA’s definition of the long term AFSS plan.
Price pressure forced the move to AFSS. Might not the availability of new private sector options drive towards further automation?