There’s a radio segment called “I Believe”, in which people from different walks of life explain what they hold true. I believe in things I cannot see. I believe that Industry would like to privatize most (if not all) of Air Traffic Control.
I cannot prove this, and I would not ask you to accept it on faith or friendship, so I’d like to ask you to evaluate my assertion in two ways: (1) does it explain what you’ve seen, and (2) does it help you predict what happens next.
An old-timer once explained to me that the ATC Industry finds big facilities much more profitable than small facilities. There’s economies of scale, but there’s also the glamour and politics of a big operation. He explained to me that vendors and corporations don’t value VFR towers, because all you can sell to a VFR tower is a set of binoculars, sunglasses and notepads. The vendors and corporations love Center-type environments, though: rows upon rows of equipment that needs to be maintained and updated, software as well as hardware, and a continual stream of new systems that need to be trained, implemented, and maintained. Corporations love big facilities; they’re the most profitable.
Flight Service was an interesting niche. It was once one of the three air traffic control specialties: Terminal, Enroute, and (Flight Service) Station. Although their personnel never sequenced aircraft, they provided a lot of service to pilots: they’d track VFR pilots so that somebody would start looking for them if they didn’t arrive safely, they gave weather and NOTAM briefings, they’d help orient lost pilots back when ADF was a mainstay.
Some FSS personnel were people who started off wanting to work in FSS; most were training failures from the Terminal and Enroute options, people who understood airplanes and the terminology well but who weren’t destined to say “cleared for the approach“. Quite often, Flight Service Stations were located on small airports in small towns, and if you worked at FSS you were an aviation ambassador. Up in Alaska, if you were in Flight Service you were damn near mayor.
The essential FSS function was to provide pre-flight briefings on the weather and route of flight, including information on what was open and closed, and what was working and broken. You could get a briefing over the phone, but you could also park your airplane on the ramp and walk into the FSS to get a face-to-face briefing. Flight instructors would take student pilots to see the FSS and experience a face-to-face briefing.
FSS specialists knew everything about the local flying area. They knew the public airports, the private airports, and the bootleg strips that aren’t supposed to be there. They knew the local weather better than the weatherman; they’d know things like which end of the valley would get fogged in first. A disoriented pilot could call them on the radio and tell them what they saw, and FSS would tell the pilot where he was.
If you were a pilot and weren’t flying for an airline (they had their own Dispatch offices), FSS was a source of help, information, and safety. When a rookie pilot was thinking about flying a mountainous route in inclement weather, the FSS briefer would tell them “VFR flight not recommended” and that contributed to a lot of improved decision making.
Flight Service was an important part of the integrated ATC system. If the average flight consisted of Pre-Flight, Takeoff, Departure, EnRoute, Arrival, Landing, and Post-Flight, then the FSS handled Pre-Flight and Post-Flight.
A lot of what Flight Service provided was “information”. They had government-populated databases of weather and equipment, and they’d interpret the data to provide value-added briefings and advice. When AOL and CompuServe appeared, pilots could go “online” and get information out of the same government databases. FSS didn’t have a monopoly on access to the data anymore.
What nobody mentioned is that while it was easy to get FSS’s information online, the FSS system owned the database designs and the intellectual property; if they’d been a business they could have licensed their applications for billions.
The Bush administration came into town with a “starve the beast” philosophy. Ronald Reagan had declared “Government isn’t part of the problem, government is the problem”, and Bush-43 followed suit.
Just as Al Gore had made air traffic control a poster child for his “reinventing government” campaign, Team Bush set about closing the doors at FSS and contracting the business to Lockheed Martin Aerospace, or LockMart. They also forced imposed work conditions upon the controllers in Terminal and Enroute.
LockMart could not ramp up to staff the new contract without a trained workforce. In 2005 the FAA terminated their own workforce and handed them over to LockMart, along with the existing buildings and facilities.
LockMart commenced a reduction in both specialists and facilities, moving the function of several former stations into large phone centers they called “hubs”. Eventually, all FSS functions will be provided by three hubs – Prescott, AZ, Houston TX, and Leesburg, VA. LockMart has successfully redesigned the national Flight Service system into a small number of complex, large facilities that (surprisingly) maximize their own profitability.
Inside the Towers and Centers, most people think that the LockMart FSS operation is a fiasco: dropped cancellations, missing flight plans, lost PIREPS, and dealing with people unfamiliar with the local area – or with any area, in fact. We look at LockMart and chortle to ourselves, “wow that’s a failure”.
Curiously, LockMart FSS is a huge success from an external perspective. They’ve taken over a government operation with a cost-plus contract, and they have been training pilots to not call them. The cost-per-operation is plummeting, and the revenue-per-operation is climbing. Who is picking up the slack? Other online flight-planning businesses for corporate flying, DUATs, pilots with cellphones, and controllers in facilities.
It goes back to a previous point – success or failure isn’t defined by those “in the know”, it’s assigned by the public and the budgeteers. LockMart has been telling and selling their success story wherever they can.
Morally, contracting FSS was indefensible. They flushed a bunch of career employees just before they were eligible to retire. They used a commercial bidding process (A-76) to outsource a non-commercial (that is, inherently governmental) function. They lied to the alphabet-groups about “equal or better”, and they promised amazing things with their new technology.
Operationally, there’s a real loss of area knowledge and expertise. There’s more to operating a Station than operating a phone center, and LockMart is running phone centers. Today a specialist is Raleigh FSS, tomorrow he’s Jacksonville FSS. If LockMart had their way, during slack minutes the specialist would be taking credit card applications.
Politically, we used to have 2800 people in about 90 Stations. Their story of service and safety was a story we could have, should have told the taxpaying public. They were each important to their community and to their Congressmen. They were a source of influence and power; that’s gone.
We didn’t get worked up about FSS because we were tactically focused on the Controller Contract, and not strategically focused on the bigger picture.
The industry and LockMart won. They’ve got the business. They’ve proved they can replace government air traffic control. We’ve dismantled the old system and you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Whatever happens in FSS, it’ll be Lockheed Martin getting paid for it from now on, and that’s what winning looks like if you’re a Corporate Vendor.
Flight Service was where the Industry started. Do you believe they’re finished?