How Contracting Government Gets People Killed—Part III

By now you should be getting a clear picture on what all this recent talk of privatization and contracting out of government services is really all about—lining the pockets of corporations with no tangible benefits or any real savings to the taxpayer.  And today you’ll find out that famous name who may be among the many victims of the Great AFSS Scam of 2005—the contracting out of this nation’s Automated Flight Service Stations.  (Again, the following was written in 2008 using data that was factual at that time; most of this stuff has only gotten worse since):

Automated Flight Service Stations
Duties and Responsibilities

Think of an AFSS as one-stop shopping for pilots preparing for flight.  A general aviation pilot will call these facilities to file a flight plan.  An Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan is conducted via instruments and utilizes positive Air Traffic Control (ATC) service from point of origination all the way to the destination airport.  A Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flight plan is filed when the pilot wants to fly on his or her own during good (visual) weather, but wants someone to know if they are overdue and what route they were taking in case of a mishap.  VFR flight plans are entirely voluntary, but considered a good safety practice for cross-country flights.  An overdue VFR pilot knows that Search and Rescue will be activated along the filed route of flight if they fail to check in at the destination by a specified time.

In addition to flight plans, AFSS briefers also advise pilots of weather information along their route of flight and at the airports they will be using, including instrument (low visibility/low ceiling) conditions, convective weather, and icing conditions.

Finally, there is the NOTAM system.  NOTices to AirMen directly affect the safe conduct of flights and are critical to flight planning.  Such information includes closed en route airspace along the intended route (military exercises, presidential movements, etc.), nonoperational navigation aids, ATC outages, runway or taxiway closures, and other information.

Airlines for the most part supply these services to their aircrews themselves.  Military aircraft access these services on military airfields through the military’s Base Operations facilities, but when operating from a civilian airfield revert to utilizing AFSS.  Most other pilots—including air ambulance flights, air taxis, and general aviation (private pilots)—file flight plans and get their briefings through AFSS.

As you can see, the information upon which the pilot relies must be complete, timely, and 100% accurate or it does the pilot no good—or worse, gets him killed.  For instance, whenever the President of the United States is away from the White House, there is a thirty-mile radius flight restriction placed around his location.  If, as an example, he is at a ranch in Crawford, Texas, or giving a speech in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the FAA issues a NOTAM advising pilots to remain at least thirty miles away from his precise location at all times.  Any aircraft violating this closed airspace is intercepted by fighters, escorted to a nearby airfield, ordered to land, and the pilot taken into custody.  Pilots then face suspension of their license and other possible penalties.

That is if everything goes well.  If the pilot does not see the interceptor, or for some reason acts suspiciously or continues in a direction toward the president’s location (which one would expect if the pilot is not aware of the NOTAM), they face combat engagement, destruction of the aircraft, and death.  The stakes are high.

Lockheed Martin AFSS briefers have in the past failed to advise VFR pilots of just such Presidential Movement NOTAMs.  Frequently.  So far nobody’s aircraft has been fired upon.  Nobody has died.  Yet.  Fortunately for such pilots, and unfortunately for Lockheed Martin, such pilot briefings are recorded.  These recordings have saved victimized pilots from losing their license and worse.  These recordings have not however prevented Lockheed Martin from continuing to collect their $3 million quarterly bonuses.

A Complete Disintegration of Service

As Lockheed Martin’s tentacles continued to entwine and eventually strangle the nation’s AFSS infrastructure, pilot services started deteriorating to totally unacceptable, dangerously unsafe levels.  Callers routinely reported waits of forty minutes and more.  When pilots did get through many of the flight plans they filed with AFSS never showed up in the NAS computers even after repeated callbacks by both exasperated pilots and frustrated Air Traffic Controllers.  I have lost count of the number of times I have had to disengage myself from separating aircraft or performing other safety-related duties and divert my attention to manually entering such flight plans into the system myself.  So, how bad has it gotten?

Let us take a look at the number of AFSS ‘operations’ for the years 2002 through 2006.  During those years operations steadily declined: 2002-27,714,000, 2003-26,633,000, 2004-25,922,000, 2005-22,519,000, 2006-19,744,000.  As you can see, since October 2005 when Lockheed Martin took over AFSS functions, the number of pilots calling in started dropping more rapidly.  Indeed, from 2005 (the last partial year in which the FAA handled AFSS functions) to 2006 (the first full year Lockheed Martin controlled AFSS) there were approximately 2,775,000 fewer pilot calls.  This is the single biggest drop by far for the years listed.

But take a look at the number of AFSS operations in 2007.  That year the number of pilots calling in dropped to 7,715,000, an astounding 61% decline in just one year!  What does that mean in real terms?  It means that pilots gave up trying to get through to AFSS twelve million times in 2007.  Millions of VFR flight plans didn’t get filed.  Millions of pilots got their en route weather information from non-aviation, non-FAA approved sources.  Millions of pilots conducted flights researching on their own for NOTAMS directly affecting their safety.  This reduction in operations partially explains why Lockheed Martin was finally approaching the level of service pilots enjoyed when the FAA handled this function—over half the customers were chased away.

And in case you think things couldn’t get any worse, the figures for 2008 showed yet another 31% drop.  That year AFSS operations totaled 5,334,000.  But wait, that number is actually worse than it appears.  You’ll recall that the Agency was ordered by Congress to keep its three Alaskan AFSS facilities.  Ironically this exemption was a provision placed in the budget by pro-privatization Republican Congressman Don Young.  Congressman Young apparently doesn’t mind risking other states’ citizens, but when it comes to his constituents . . . well, apparently only the best will do, and the best did not include Lockheed Martin.  But I digress.  The point is, if you subtract from the total AFSS operations those conducted by the FAA’s three Alaskan stations, Lockheed Martin’s customer base is down to an embarrassingly low 4,778,000.

As complaints rose and Congress demanded action from Marion Blakey, who in turn began applying pressure to Lockheed Martin by withholding that one quarter’s worth of bonus money, Lockheed Martin set up a system to automatically reroute calls from busy AFSS facilities to others in different areas.  The problem with this ‘solution’ is that it creates another even more dangerous problem.  You will recall that one of the contract stipulations is that pilots will get briefings from personnel familiar with the area in which they will be flying.  But that requirement went out the window with this call rerouting scheme.  Now, a pilot in Tucson, Arizona, who calls the Prescott AFSS may find that the briefer to whom he is entrusting his life and the lives of his passengers is operating out of the AFSS in Lansing, Michigan—a briefer who has never even seen the desert Southwest, let alone shown any actual familiarity with the local weather, military restricted areas, terrain, and other safety critical information.

Now go back to that drop in customer contacts.  When one considers that efficiency is in large part measured by the cost per operation, this reduction in customers means that the taxpayer is paying several times more per AFSS operation since contract implementation.  A conservative estimate would be that the cost per operation is over triple and probably close to quadruple what it was pre-privatization.

One would think that Lockheed Martin would take advantage of this historic, unprecedented drop in AFSS operations to finally get its house in order.  Corporate profits dictate otherwise.  On October 15, 2008, Lockheed Martin announced the surprise closing of an additional five AFSS facilities and the termination of 158 badly needed AFSS specialists.  The facilities on the chopping block were Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oakland and San Diego in California; Denver, Colorado; and Macon, Georgia.  Pilots calling these facilities would in the future find themselves talking to specialists in Asburn, Viginia; Prescott, Arizona; and Fort Worth, Texas.  Those pilots had better hope that, unlike the previous call rerouting scheme, they wind up talking to a specialist who is relocated from one of the closed facilities, and who is thus familiar with their flight route.  Their lives will depend on it.

So… Who Could Possibly Still Defend This Mess?
The Person Who Initially Proposed it

Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation likes to brag that he invented the term ‘privatization’ in regard to contracting out public services.  He acted as an adviser on privatization and transportation to the George W. Bush Administration and applauded Marion Blakey’s outsourcing of AFSS.  Now that the U.S. taxpayer is saddled with paying Lockheed Martin to service less than a quarter of the customers the Agency originally handed to them in 2005, what does Poole have to say for himself and his now discredited ideas on privatizing ATC services?  In his June 2008 Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #54 he stated:

“Alas, things did not go smoothly during the consolidation from 58 facilities to just 20. Calls did not always get answered promptly, some of the new briefers did not get up to speed quickly, and many private pilots complained bitterly and at some length. As an advocate for his members, (Phil) Boyer (President, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) highlighted the problems and urged the FAA to take action. But to his credit, he did not back down or change his mind that outsourcing was the best way to reduce costs, modernize the operation, and keep the program viable.

“Fortunately, Lockheed Martin has taken action to add surge capacity to handle peak periods better, added staff and workstations, and brought back some retirees, on a part-time basis, to beef up training. In his June 2008 editorial in AOPA Pilot, Boyer reports that complaints at Pilot Town Meetings are way down, and 80% are satisfied or very satisfied with the service they are now getting. The FAA is reporting on the level of service every 90 days.

“Thus, what started out looking like it might have been a fiasco turned out to be just transition problems. Assuming today’s high levels of user satisfaction are maintained, I can’t see any political case for attempting to overturn the LM contract.”

“… transition problems….”  Nearly 80% of AFSS customers chased away by total ineptitude, yet Poole still holds up the AFSS example as a privatization success.  Amazingly recalcitrant for one so wrong so often, as we shall see later.  One supposes that of the perhaps hundreds of people who’ve died as a direct result of having given up on such poor AFSS service, none were acquaintances or relatives of Robert Poole.

And Real People Do Die
as a Direct Result

How many pilots and their passengers have died as a direct result of this degradation in service?  One can only speculate.  For instance, was aviation pioneer and world record-setter Steve Fossett one of the twelve million who just gave up calling Lockheed Martin in 2007?  Did he take off using non-aviation weather information . . . information that would not have included turbulence and wind shear information in the mountainous area in which his Bellanca was eventually found?  Did he even know, as a deputy sheriff reported that day, that isolated thunderstorms with their associated microbursts and downdrafts were popping up over and around the mountainous terrain in which the wreckage of his aircraft was eventually discovered?  If not for the long telephone waits, might he have otherwise filed a VFR flight plan with his intended route of flight, thus aiding search and rescue personnel in locating the wreckage in a matter of hours as opposed to thirteen months?

We’ll never know for certain if this is the case with Steve Fossett, but we can be certain that other, less well-known victims have indeed been killed because they gave up trying to get through to a Lockheed Martin AFSS briefer.

There are other things of which we can be certain:  AIA member Lockheed Martin will continue collecting their quarterly $3-million dollar bonuses for contractual requirements they’ve never met.  The FAA managers who make sure those bonuses continue rolling out the door despite obvious breach of contract will one day be rewarded with lucrative, post-government jobs by an AIA member (perhaps even Lockheed Martin).  And finally, we can be certain that Marion Blakey will continue in her capacity as President and CEO of AIA for far more than she earned as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Most of you reading this book will shrug off the consequences of the privatization of AFSS because you only fly commercially.  You would do well to pay heed.  AFSS was not the only privatization target of the Bush Administration and their agent of implementation, Marion Blakey.  Many are firmly convinced that the ultimate goal was to sell off to corporations the entire triad of Air Traffic Control—Flight Service Stations, Terminal Control Facilities (Towers and TRACONs), and perhaps even the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC).  But before she could accomplish this sell-off, Ms. Blakey, Secretaries of Transportation Mary Peters and Norm Minetta before her, Congressman John Mica, and other conspirators would have to destroy both the union representing the nation’s ATC workforce and the very system itself.

Fortunately for the flying public, they failed despite their best, illegal efforts to do so.

In this segment you saw how taxpayers wound up actually paying more to Lockheed Martin than the FAA spent on the same function . . . and you’re paying that larger amount to handle only about 20% of the calls because Lockheed Martin chased away upwards of 80% of their customer traffic with incredibly bad service.  And what ever happened to those 80% of pilots who gave up listening to busy signals, getting put on hold, having their radio calls go unanswered, or their flight plans just disappear into thin air?  As you have seen, some of them died as a direct result of this scam.

If you fly and you value your life, tell your Congressman and Senators that you don’t want the same thing happening to the rest of this nation’s air traffic control infrastructure.

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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2 responses to “How Contracting Government Gets People Killed—Part III

  1. jkap

    Oh do tell Doug how marion tried to break the union, one of the few forces left to fight her.

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