How Contracting Government Gets People Killed—Part II


Getting kind of ticked off, yet, after Part I?  In the continuation of this series, you’re going to see how you’re being duped into handing over to contractors somewhere between $20 billion and $40 billion for a system that cannot deliver on almost any of the promised benefits.  And in Part III you will see examples of why contracting out essential government services not only costs the taxpayers money, it also kills people . . . including—

Well, we don’t want to ruin the surprise, now do we.  So, let’s just get on with Part II for now (Remember that all facts cited were accurate as of 2008, and that most of this stuff has only gotten a lot worse since):

NextGen vs. NowGen

But first, what exactly is NextGen?  It will surprise the reader to know that there is no concrete definition—neither from the Agency pushing it nor the former Administrator who pinned her post-government employment opportunities upon it.  What it appears to be is several as of yet undefined technologies, but most notably it will probably wind up being something called ADS-B.  The Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system is a method of deriving aircraft positions and altitudes via satellite and transmitting that information to the controller on a standard radar-type display.  The advantages of ADS-B over radar are unlimited range (standard airport radar is limited to a 60-mile radius; en route to about 200), increased accuracy (down to as little as thirty feet, or about ten times greater accuracy than long-range en route radar), and near-instantaneous, one-second position updating (versus a 4.8-second scan rate for airport radar and around 12 seconds for en route systems).

Sounds great.  So what’s not to like?  First of all, radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging) is actually two technologies rather than one.  Primary radar sends out radio frequency radiation which bounces off the aircraft and returns to the radar antenna.  Equipment then measure the time the signal took to return and the precise rotational angle of the antenna to determine the aircraft’s bearing and distance.  Very antiquated technology—dating back to English defenses during WWII—but it works well enough in the event that an aircraft loses its transponder.

Which brings us to the second type of radar, known logically enough as secondary radar.  This secondary radar system sends an interrogator signal to a device aboard the aircraft.  This device is the transponder.  The transponder encodes additional information such as altitude and, in newer Mode-S systems, the precise location as derived from GPS.  A secondary radar system interrogating a Mode-S transponder is thus just as accurate during the actual scan as is ADS-B, but once again that position report is not updated as frequently.

Once ADS-B is fully operational, the FAA plans to dismantle its expensive, maintenance intensive, nationwide network of airport and en route radar systems.  But there are a number of glitches to this plan:  All aircraft will need to upgrade to ADS-B equipment at the cost of perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars per aircraft.  An aircraft not so equipped will be invisible to the controller.  Additionally, the GPS satellites are susceptible to interference by everything from solar activity, to meteoroid or space junk collision and damage, to intentional interference by jamming or, worse, anti-satellite missile activity.  Indeed the Chinese only recently tested with great success just such a missile on an obsolete weather satellite.

Even a lumbering bureaucracy can endanger GPS.  A recent GAO report shows that the Air Force because of mismanagement and underfunding is years behind upgrading and replacing aging GPS satellites.  According to the GAO, system degradation including region-wide GPS blackouts could very well begin starting in 2010.  And this is the technological basket into which the FAA wants to put all its eggs.  Marion Blakey and her hand-picked (although thankfully temporary) replacement Bobby Sturgell have all but ensured it.

Then there’s the 9/11 scenario:  After commandeering an aircraft a well-versed hijacker either switches off the ADS-B or, if such a switch is not incorporated for security reasons, goes to the circuit breaker panel and trips the breaker powering the unit.  In this event, with no primary radar to fall back on, the aircraft simply disappears from the controller’s screen.  The controller has no way of knowing if the aircraft crashed, diverted to a nearby airport, or is winging its way toward Capitol Hill during a joint session of Congress attending a speech by the President of the United States.  This is precisely the scenario which played out on September 11, 2001.  Hijackers aboard three of the four aircraft successfully commandeered that day disabled the transponders almost immediately.  On radar screens across the country those airliners quit transmitting position and altitude information.  Controllers were able to partially defeat this ploy however by falling back to their primary radar.  This resulted in the successful evacuation of several high-profile targets in the Washington, D.C., area (including the White House and the Capitol) before the crash into the Pentagon.

So, not only does NextGen fail in its primary stated role in reducing air carrier delays, it also degrades national security and leaves the country more vulnerable in the event of another 9/11-style attack.

Back to following the money.  Remember the date on which Marion Blakey’s tenure as FAA Administrator ended—September 13, 2007—and follow the chain of events in the months leading up to that date.

In June, with three months remaining in her five-year stint as administrator, Marion C. Blakey entered into negotiations with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) to take over the position of AIA president and CEO.

The Aerospace Industries Association announced on August 21, 2007, that their next CEO and President would be Marion C. Blakey.  She was slated to take the new position on November 12, 2007.  Her salary was not disclosed, but her predecessor in that position earned approximately $530,000 in 2005.  One can safely assume she will garner no less, and probably much more.  Blakey’s pay as FAA Administrator was $168,000.

Only nine days after the AIA announcement, on August 30, 2007, Administrator Blakey apparently reciprocated.  She announced that AIA member ITT had been awarded a $1.8-billion contract for initial development of NextGen.  The contract is highly controversial in that the FAA fronts much of the money for development on the system yet does not own it.  In fact under the terms of the contract the agency winds up paying a subscription fee on a system for which it paid a substantial portion of the development costs.  Final FAA costs are projected to be somewhere between $15- and $20-billion, with a like amount being paid by system users.  If past modernization projects are any indication then lax FAA oversight, mission creep, and unbudgeted system enhancements will double or triple this estimate.  The contract does not expire until 2025.

And what of Bobby Sturgell, Marion Blakey’s hand-picked successor?  Sturgell’s nomination by President George W. Bush to remove the word ‘Acting’ from his title of FAA Administrator was shot down in Congress by senators who had long grown tired of the ineptitude and outright corruption running rampant throughout the Agency’s upper management ranks.  Not surprisingly, he followed in his mentor’s footsteps and found his way to lucrative employment with yet another AIA member—Rockwell Collins—where he gained the title of Senior Vice President, Washington Operations.  According to Rockwell Collins’ website, Sturgell is, “… responsible for developing and implementing the company’s governmental, regulatory, legislative and industrial affairs strategies, and for maintaining relationships with Congressional members, staff and other administration officials.”  Put another way, he’s cashing in at taxpayer expense on the political connections he made when he was with the FAA.

And Sturgell’s qualifications for this high-paying, post-government position?  “Bobby’s extensive experience and strong working relationships, in Washington D.C. as well as the aerospace and defense industry, will help ensure we are well-positioned to provide perspective and insight regarding policy and legislation important to our business.”  In other words, Sturgell will lobby all those Agency ‘Vice Presidents’ which both he and Marion Blakey installed during their tenure at the FAA.

Rockwell Collins is a leading supplier of avionics.  They already supply almost all the onboard GPS navigation systems in use on Boeing and Airbus aircraft as well as Bombardier’s CRJ Regional Jets.  When NextGen and ADS-B become the reality that he helped ensure, Rockwell Collins stands to make a fortune retrofitting existing aircraft to ADS-B standards.

The Great AFSS Taxpayer
Rip-off of 2005

One should not walk away from this thinking that ITT is the lone AIA beneficiary of Administrator Blakey’s largesse.  Fellow AIA member Lockheed Martin walked away with a similar amount two years before—a ten-year, $1.9-billion contract.  That deal included Blakey handing over the keys to the government’s entire Automated Flight Service Station (AFSS) infrastructure (minus Alaska’s three stations, which Congress ordered the Agency to retain), long ago paid for with U.S. taxpayer monies.  This contract was supposed to save the U.S. taxpayer $2.2-billion over thirteen years (a curious claim for a ten-year contract).  That figure does not include $2-billion in continued FAA costs for personnel and equipment during the contract’s lifetime.  So, the actual anticipated savings to the government would be about $200-million, or about $80,000 for each of the 2,500 dedicated public servants whose lives were turned upside down, stripping from them—many within just a few years of eligibility—their retirements and financial futures.  Nevertheless, the keys to one of the three legs upon which this country’s air traffic system rests were turned over to Lockheed Martin beginning in October of 2005.  It’s been a downhill slide in service and safety ever since.

Contractually, Lockheed Martin is required to meet certain, specific, quantifiable performance objectives.  AFSS personnel have twenty seconds to answer an incoming telephone call.  On any given day, no more than five percent of callers are allowed to get a ‘busy’ signal.  Incoming radio calls from pilots must be answered within five seconds.  Flight plans must be entered error-free into the NAS computers within three minutes of receipt.  The AFSS briefer to whom a pilot is speaking must be trained in the area in which the flight will be conducted, meaning they are familiar with local airports (including current runway or taxiway closures, reduced services, or other potential impacts to flight safety), no-fly areas (military restricted airspace, presidential movement notices, etc.), weather phenomena, terrain, obstructions, and other ‘traps’ into which an unsuspecting pilot unfamiliar with the area might fall.  In each quarter that these criteria are met Lockheed Martin receives a $3-million bonus.

The reader will be interested to know that Lockheed Martin has never met almost any of its basic contractual requirements, yet only one quarterly bonus has been withheld by the FAA to date, and that was mischaracterized by many at the time as a ‘fine.’  Indeed, Lockheed Martin only recently has come anywhere close to the level of service that the FAA provided before the Agency relinquished this function to Lockheed Martin, yet Lockheed Martin continues to receive that quarterly $3-million bonus as if they were in full and complete compliance.  You’ll be shocked to see how Lockheed Martin managed to recently improve.  They did it by chasing away nearly 80% of the customers the FAA entrusted to them.  But more on that in a moment.

And the savings to the taxpayer?  Administrator Blakey announced within months of contract implementation that anticipated savings had dropped from the $2.2-billion initially promised to about $1.7-billion.  That estimate is still far too high because the Agency in its rush to contract out this function failed to account for several duties routinely performed by AFSS personnel.  Since these duties were not placed in the original contract, they have since been doled out to other FAA personnel and even other governmental agencies.  The costs associated with these transfers of duties are also not taken into account.  And since $2-billion of the original $2.2-billion estimate were already nullified by keeping off the books certain AFSS-related Agency expenditures, the taxpayer will actually wind up spending substantially more than had AFSS functions been retained by the government.

So, what are the consequences to lives, property, and national defense?  To answer this you must first know the primary function of an AFSS briefer.

Friday:  Part III

copyright © 2011 R. Doug Wicker

No portions of this article are to be used, quoted, copied, or retransmitted without the permission of the author.

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3 Comments

Filed under Aviation Safety, Technology/New Stuff

3 responses to “How Contracting Government Gets People Killed—Part II

  1. Doug, you came perilously near, if not nearly so close as some, referring to ADS-B as “satellite-based.” The satellites are used by the aircraft so that they might determine their own positions. Then they relay those positions to (gasp!) ground-based stations which then, in turn, provide the data that is displayed to air traffic controllers on their workstations.

    It’s a reversal of roles, actually. The ground station is the active station under the radar system, and the airplane is passive, reflecting the ground-based radar signal. In ADS-B, the airplane is active, broadcasting a “here I am!” signal to any passive ground station that might hear it.

    Of course, I know you’re aware of all this, but your readers should exercise caution whenever they hear AIA folks or their minions (viz., Cong. Mica) refer to NextGen or ADS-B as “satellite-based.” There certainly is a critical satellite component. Unlike Cong. Mica’s implications, however, ground stations are still as critical, if not moreso, for collecting the position data from the various aircraft, then generating the presentation data for controllers.

    NextGen advocates suggest that we can turn off the radars after the advent of ADS-B. You have rightly pointed out the fallacy of that course of action, in that aircraft can turn off their transponders or ADS-B “squitters” and render themselves practically invisible.

  2. Very good clarification, Elaine. Indeed, the information for aircraft positioning is derived from satellites (via GPS), but that information is relayed to the controller through a vast network of ground stations.

    If the aircraft hits a GPS blind-spot or is not receiving information from at least three to four satellites simultaneously, the position information relayed to the controller will be inaccurate. If the aircraft’s ADS-B fails or is turned off, its position information disappears. If an ADS-B ground station is disrupted, either intentionally or through failure, the position information of every aircraft in that area disappears.

    Pretty darned scary no matter what the scenario.

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