Every day, pilots — lots of pilots — go online to check weather and file flight plans through the two FAA-approved DUAT providers. In fact, in one month alone, CSC DUAT provides 2.5 million weather briefings.
“We run giant numbers,” says Leon Thomas, DUAT program manager at Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC).
And those numbers have gone up recently with the transition woes experienced by Lockheed Martin as the company consolidates Flight Service Stations around the country. Glitches in that transition have pilots complaining loudly, with the FAA penalizing Lockheed Martin by withholding $3 million in payments because of “poor performance.”
“Last month, our number of transactions went up 12%,” Thomas reports. “That’s pretty phenomenal for a program that’s been running for 17 years.”
So why is DUAT in danger?
FAA officials have notified both DUAT companies, CSC and Data Transformation Corp. (DTC), that their contracts, which expire in September, won’t be renewed. Instead, FAA will turn over web briefing to Lockheed Martin once that company’s pilot web portal is up and running. That is supposed to happen this summer.
However, both DUAT companies have had a bit of a reprieve, with their contracts extended through June 2008. “That’s a temporary solution, which is not what we want,” Thomas says.
While executives at both DUAT companies say FAA officials have informed them of these plans, the official FAA stance is that the agency is still reviewing its options.
“We haven’t determined whether or not the contracts with CSC and DTC will be renewed or if we’ll be going with Lockheed Martin’s web portal,” says Paul Takemoto, an FAA spokesman.
CSC and DTC are paid about $8 million each year for providing DUAT services.
“How that is split each year fluctuates, since they’re paid according to the number of transactions they perform,” he explains.
That has led to intense competition between the two companies, with pilots being the ultimate winners.
“We are continually making improvements to our system to increase our market share,” says William Young, DTC’s DUAT program manager. “If there is only one vendor, then guess what? That’s not going to happen.”
It’s important to note, adds CSC’s Thomas, that all the enhancements are done at the companies’ expense — not the pilots, who pay nothing for the service, or the FAA’s.
Going to a single source for these services is, according to Young, “selling pilots short.”
“If you don’t appreciate how much competition contributes to what we do, check out how many new products DTC has added in the last two years, all at our own expense, targeted at increasing overall situational awareness and ease of preparation for a safe flight,” he says. “These new features have increased our user activity in excess of 40% over the last three years, which is a direct indication of the value of these new products. Competition and incentive payment based on how many pilots use the system is a proven, demonstrated and prudent business approach.”
Keeping the two companies in limbo with contract extensions rather than renewals is bad for business — and bad for pilots, according to CSC’s Thomas.
“We can’t make plans,” he says. “It’s hard for me to justify enhancing the programs and spending money that we may never recover.”
While it will mean hardship for both companies that provide DUAT services if the contracts go away, officials at both companies say the real losers will be pilots.
“We don’t want to lose the DUAT services,” Thomas says. “It gives us a tremendous amount of visibility, but the pilot community will be the definite loser if we go away.”
“Pilots will not have a choice of providers when the FAA eliminates the DUAT contracts,” Young adds. “They will have to accept what Lockheed Martin offers. It has taken the two DUAT vendors over 17 years of continuing development to improve their services to the point that they are now, and there is no reason to think that Lockheed Martin will take any less time. The two DUAT vendors are continuing to aggressively enhance their services, even while Lockheed Martin is developing its initial offering. Wouldn’t competition provide superior service?”
Competition doesn’t have to go away if the DUAT contracts aren’t renewed, FAA officials say.
“Our contract with Lockheed Martin calls for the company to provide multiple means of providing flight services, but other vendors are always free to provide DUATs-like services,” Takemoto says.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
What can the pilot community do to keep the DUAT providers?
According to DTC’s Young, the alphabet groups, such as AOPA, EAA, NBAA and others, are key to communicating the value “that only a competitive program like DUAT can deliver.”
“If you want DUAT to be around, you need to contact those organizations and ask them to make your voice be heard to the FAA,” he says.
There’s something else you can do: Use DUAT.
“The most important thing pilots can do is to continue to use the systems,” CSC’s Thomas says.