Public-private co-op could lower AFSS costs

 - February 1, 2007, 8:58 AM

Members of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS), the labor union that represents more than 2,700 FAA employees who staff the agency’s automated flight service stations (AFSS), are joining with information technology contractor Harris Corp. in a bid to keep their jobs from being outsourced to a private company.

The FAA has been studying the possibility of turning the operation of 58 AFSS facilities over to an outside provider for some time, despite assurances by FAA Administrator Marion Blakey during the FAA budget squabble last fall that the agency had no plans to privatize any part of the ATC system for at least a year.

That prompted Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) to ask, “Do you not consider AFSSs to be part of the air traffic control system? I would argue they most certainly are part of our nation’s air traffic control system as they provide pilot weather briefings, assist in search-and-rescue and process flight plans, among other functions.”

In December last year the FAA announced it would conduct a public-private competition in accordance with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular A-76 for AFSS services. Last June the agency issued a screening information request/request for information to ascertain how many companies might be interested. It received 18 responses.

The driving factors of the AFSS A-76 study were reports published in 2001 by the General Accounting Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general that were critical of the current AFSS program. The reports pointed out the increasing costs to maintain the current AFSS program, the FAA’s inability to effectively modernize the current computer system and widespread inefficiencies. The current system costs about $500 million annually.

Approximately 2,700 employees at 58 stations are involved in the A-76 competition. Those in Alaska have been excluded due to that state’s unique nature and requirements.

Harris and the FAA employees represented by NAATS will be teamed against other companies in the competition, which reportedly has drawn interest from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. It has been noted that pairing the FAA’s veteran workforce with Harris will aid their chances of keeping the work in-house.

The FAA is including equipment at the 58 stations in the competition, meaning technical improvements could be a significant factor in the bidding. Florida-based Harris already has several contracts with the FAA and it currently supplies technical equipment at some flight service stations.

The FAA employees, who together with Harris call themselves the “most efficient organization” (MEO), said that teaming with Harris is really important to the MEO because of the technology element. “We’re not in a position right now where we can go look for new technology, and there’s nobody better than Harris for that,” said Kate Breen, a former AFSS specialist who is now an official with NAATS.

According to Government Executive magazine, Harris would be a subcontractor to the MEO. Flight service specialists at seven stations already use a Harris system known as the operation and supportability implementation system (Oasis) to plan flights and conduct weather briefings. The technology impressed officials with the MEO, who felt it made Harris stand out from other firms that expressed an interest in teaming with the FAA workers.

The in-house workers also considered submitting their bid without a private-sector partner, as federal workers typically do in public-private job competitions. But Robert McMullen, the FAA program manager for the MEO, said the FAA’s tight competition deadlines convinced the in-house team to pursue an industry partner.

Blakey said in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, that under her agency’s current schedule, “the final source-selection decisions with respect to the AFSS competition will occur early in fiscal year 2005.” FY 2005 begins on October 1.

She reiterated that during this 2004 fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2003, to Sept. 30, 2004) the agency has no plans to initiate additional competitive sourcing studies, “nor will we displace FAA employees by entering into binding contracts to convert to private entities any existing FAA position directly related to our air traffic control system.”
Blakey’s letter was in response to a request for clarification on the status of “contracting out” of FAA functions related to flight services and the certification or maintenance of ATC equipment used in the National Airspace System. “I understand that you are not advocating that the FAA in-source any functions currently performed by contractors or cease work and analysis already under way,” she said.

AOPA, which asked for and was given permission by the FAA to participate in A-76, said in a position brief that a common misperception of the A-76 process is that it results in privatization of a government function, which the association said is not the case.

“The A-76 is not a privatization study, nor is it a foregone conclusion that services studied will be contracted out,” AOPA said. Most important, the current service provider (the FAA) has a key role in the process, in that it submits its own business-case analysis of its service and a plan for maximizing those services in the future.

While AOPA continues to argue that aviation weather services are critical to public safety and should be provided by the government without fees, it recognizes that the current FSS system is in serious trouble and there might be better ways of doing business.

“AOPA would actively oppose any measures that would remove responsibility for flight services from the federal government,” the organization said. But it noted that the use of outside resources for FSS functions is not unprecedented. In the 1980s, the FAA implemented DUAT, with private contractors providing aviation weather services directly to pilots.

But congressman Rogers, who has an AFSS in his district, pointed out that AFSS employees are privy to classified information when military aircraft, such as Air Force One, are in their area of coverage. “Although I am a believer in the free market and of limiting the role of government, when it comes to ensuring safety and security of the American people those duties should always remain a government function,” he wrote Blakey. “Therefore, I strongly urge you to reconsider your notice of intent to conduct a public-private competition, as I firmly believe the services provided by the AFSS to be an ‘inherently governmental’ function.”