The House of Representatives has passed the Transportation-Treasury-Housing Appropriations bill — with an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). That amendment means, in plain English, that the FAA would be forced to terminate the FSS modernization contract with Lockheed-Martin, the taxpayers would pay a $350 million penalty to Lockheed, and pilots would continue to suffer through interminable hold times and briefers who don’t have access to all the data in the system. It is, however, not a done deal. The Senate would have to pass the bill with that amendment before it could become law, and there is strong opposition to Sanders’ amendment from the FAA and the Bush administration. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it crosses his desk with the amendment still attached.
The House members who favored the anti-modernization amendment cited two reasons: safety and loss of jobs. And as Rep. Sanders noted during the floor debate, the amendment had “the strong support of the AFL-CIO, representing 13 million American workers, the Transportation Trades Department, the Professional Airway Systems Specialists (PASS), and the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS).” (PASS and NAATS are the unions representing federal employees who maintain FAA equipment and staff flight service stations.)
A flight service station in Sanders’ district would eventually close; the 32 specialists there have been offered jobs at other facilities. All the House members speaking in favor of the amendment would lose union jobs in their districts if flight service station modernization is allowed to proceed.
But members who opposed the amendment rejected the safety argument as unfounded. “Under the FAA [flight service station] reform plan, $2.2 billion in taxpayers’ dollars will be saved, and again we will have new technology to make the airspace for our general aviation pilots safer, with the best, most efficient, cost-effective technology, and at the same time, we protect the employees that are in place,” said Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee.
“Contracting out flight service stations will result in no erosion in safety,” said Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “It is a safer system, and 600,000 general aviation pilots will get better service. The contract will save taxpayers money. Not a bad idea. Employees will be protected. This, in my judgment, is a no-brainer. Congress should not step in after the fact to stop this contract and deny better services to more than 600,000 private pilots.”
Some of the members of Congress acknowledged that the current FSS system is inadequate and overpriced, even quoting AOPA President Phil Boyer during the debate: “Any pilot who has been stuck on hold for 20 minutes trying to get a weather briefing can tell you, the system is overloaded and frequently non-responsive. The system had to change, and this is a change for the better.”
In fact, the AOPA says it has been working for years to ensure that the new FSS system would provide better service at a better price. With that sort of prodding, the contract with Lockheed-Martin includes service and performance metrics and guarantees, such as a contractual guarantee that a live briefer will answer pilot phone calls within 20 seconds and acknowledge their radio calls within five seconds. Flight plans will be filed within three minutes. And there will be no user fees.
All of that, of course, is contingent on Congressional approval.