Frustrations abound with FSS: Lockheed Martin working to fix problems, but pilots say transition glitches compromise safety

It started out as frustration for Dave Davidson, a veteran GA pilot from Texas. Now he’s angry — like so many other pilots who have tried, and failed, to contact a Flight Service Station run by Lockheed Martin.

“This is a big mess,” said Davidson who, at 86, has been flying for more than 64 years. “Why has GA been abandoned?”

It’s a question that not only pilots, but alphabet groups and even the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General have asked.

Lockheed Martin took over the Flight Service Stations in October 2005. The company is modernizing the system with new software, dubbed FS21, while closing dozens of FSS and consolidating them into three hubs and 16 satellite facilities.

But once the consolidation began, pilots found themselves facing frustratingly long wait times to obtain weather information or file a flight plan.

“We tried to call on Friday and Saturday,” Davidson said in late May. “All we got were recordings that said ‘please stand by, your call is important to us.'”

After an entire weekend of trying to get someone on the line, Davidson and a friend decided to go ahead and take off from their home field of Mesquite Metro Airport in the Dallas area. Once airborne, they contacted FAA air traffic controllers in the Fort Worth area, who advised them the Lockheed Martin system was shut down.

“We were so mad,” Davidson said. “If they are going to shut the system down, they should let us know. I don’t know how Lockheed Martin could have screwed up.”

Lockheed Martin officials acknowledge there have been problems.

“We believe we have our arms around the recent issues and we’re addressing them,” said Keith Mordoff, director of external and business area communications.

Mordoff notes that the company began the process of consolidating the 58 Automated FSS into 19 facilities on Feb. 22. “We anticipate this process will conclude this summer,” he said.

Things really started falling apart at the end of April, according to officials at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. That’s when Lockheed Martin declared its three hubs operational and began consolidating the old FAA stations at the rate of three a week. During the transition period, the system crashed three times, including once when it was down for more than an hour, AOPA officials claim.

“During this transition period, we have experienced intermittent service issues as we fully implement the Flight Service for the 21st Century (FS21) system, which will improve operational efficiencies, streamline flight planning and allow the sharing of weather and air space system status across the entire AFSS network,” Mordoff explained. “We are addressing these intermittent service issues by reprioritizing the facility transition plan to focus on opening refurbished facilities, and re-evaluating the schedule for permanent site closures until the system is fully operational and staffed. We are also adding staff during peak times, such as weekends, to handle additional call volume and are enhancing our training processes for special airspace management situations. We remain committed to the highest level of service to the FAA and to the pilot community.”

Wait times have been longer than Lockheed Martin — and its customers — would like, Mordoff noted. “Again, we have been addressing this issue and we are seeing wait times steadily decreasing to an average of less than three minutes.”

That’s “all well and good,” said AOPA President Phil Boyer, “but they’re not anywhere close yet to the service levels that Lockheed Martin has contracted to provide. And we’re not just interested in national averages for time to answer a call or call abandon rate. If any pilot anywhere can’t get his call answered, or can’t get needed information, or has his flight plan go missing, we’re not getting what we’re paying for.”

It will be easier for pilots and GA advocates to keep score of Lockheed Martin’s performance soon, as the company expects to post data and charts on average wait times on its website so that it will be available for review for all pilots, according to Mordoff.

He added that the Friday before Memorial Day, the system had “unprecedented call volume in excess of 10,000 calls.” The previous record was 7,500 calls.

Letting the public know about the transition has been an ongoing effort, he said. “The FAA, AOPA and even our own website (AFSS.com) have been educating pilots about the flight service transition for years,” he said.

But for pilots like Davidson, that doesn’t help. “I don’t own a computer,” he said.

The need for up-to-date weather is critical in flight safety, Davidson said. “I can look out the window and see the local weather, but once we get off the ground we don’t know what the weather is going to be,” he said. “I think about all the students I’ve taught over the years, telling them how important a weather briefing is…and it’s even more important these days with tornadoes and all the severe weather we’ve had recently. Not having this information compromises safety.”

Those concerns led GA activitists, including AOPA’s Boyer, to contact FAA officials directly about the problems. “I have their pledge that they will do whatever it takes to ensure pilots get the safety of flight information that they need and deserve,” he said.

But why did it take so long? “I have great difficulty understanding why it has taken so long for those FAA employees responsible for the Lockheed Martin contract to address a safety of flight issue,” Boyer said. “Would the FAA allow a radar outage at a busy hub airport to continue for three weeks with no corrective action?”

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