Everyone is in a tizzy because the Flight Service system is broken. Here’s a novel idea: Let’s not fix it.
by Ross Russo
Pilots are complaining about the condition of the LockMart Flight Service system. They’re torqued off by long wait times, lost flight plans, the lack of customer service, and a perception that “local expertise” is missing from weather briefings.
OK. I’m trying to figure out what’s changed.
Times Have Changed
We all know that the FAA gave up operation of Flight Service Stations and turned the reins over to Corporate America. Good fiscal move on the part of the FAA? Well, they don’t have to deal with all those pesky government workers, with their medical benefits and pension plans. You can’t fault the FAA. They’re trying to optimize their service-to-cost ratio, and — let’s face it — the benefits of the FSS system are small in relation to the cost.
But is the FAA getting true value for the money they’re now spending? I don’t think so. Pardon my play on the cliché, as well as my butchery of the language: It’s broke, so let’s don’t fix it.
Much in the same way that it doesn’t make sense to hang a radar pod, coupled autopilot, and traffic display on a J-3, it makes no sense to spend gobs of money so pilots can call a toll-free number to get someone to talk to them about the weather. Technology has moved beyond the teletype. Shouldn’t aviation do the same?
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t used a standard weather briefing from a FSS in quite some time. Why should I? Shoot. I feel another cliché coming on. Something like, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Get it? Even the most digitally challenged FBOs have access to online weather information, and it’s usually located where even the densest of pilots can stumble across it.
Summer is over as we go to press and this is
what you see when you click “Flight Planning.” You know what, guys? Don’t bother.
There is an unbelievable wealth of weather information out there, in most cases free for the taking. Why should the FAA spend their hard-collected dollars so that we can have someone on the other end of a phone line tell us about the radar images we’ve been looking at on (pick one) The Weather Channel, ADDS, WSI, DUATS, your cell phone, or any one of the many weather-related websites?
Ah yes, did someone say “DUATS”? What a great program. Too bad the FAA wants to do away with it. It reminds me of my tour of duty with the Air Force when I was stationed in the Philippines. Pringles Potato Chips were very popular, so much so that the Commissary sold entire shipments of them in just hours. You could usually find an empty spot on the shelf where the Pringles would normally live. One day I noticed that there was no empty niche on the shelf — no Pringles either. The manager of the Commissary happened to be walking past just then, and I asked him what had happened to the Pringles. He said, “Oh, we couldn’t keep them in stock, so we discontinued them.” Let me see if I got this straight. They sold so well that you discontinued them? Government logic at its finest.
So it is with the DUAT system, whereby two vendors compete for the affections of the nation’s pilots to obtain weather briefings and to file flight plans. There’s incentive. The more briefings and filings they provide, the more money they make. What a concept!
But wait, maybe that’s working too well. The FAA wants to award the contract to the same company that’s doing so well with AFSS. Just to make sure they don’t hurt themselves, let’s make them the sole provider. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Perhaps LockMart realized that they are a tad bit overwhelmed because they recommended to the FAA that they don’t take over DUATS. The FAA hasn’t decided just yet.
But does it matter if the entire FSS system goes the way of the buggy whip? There will be some retro-aviators living in a cabin by a grass field without high-speed internet access, but hey, they’re not getting a weather briefing via tom-tom, right? Let ’em spring for a modem and a dial-up connection. The way things are going, that’d cost about the same as a gallon of avgas.
The issue isn’t getting weather information, it’s sorting through
it all. Take a student pilot under your wing now and again to help them deal with the dearth of weather guidance matched with the wealth of weather information.
So here’s my plan. The FAA lets the Flight Service Station contract die a natural death. It can just time out, exactly like our calls to the briefers. This will upset some pilots, and AOPA, who’s been arguing that AFSS is vital to aviation safety. I disagree. I think AFSS was vital to aviation safety, but that day has long gone.
DUATS works great, so let’s keep that. You can get all the weather information you could possibly need or want. You get NOTAMs. You get PIREPs. You get forecasts. You get METARs. Honestly, most of the time your problem is sifting through all the stuff you get. Do you really have to have everything read to you over the phone?
Don’t like DUATS? If you can spell the words “Google” and “Weather,” you already know twice as much as is required to get a ton of weather information (twice as much because you really don’t have to be able to spell Google). But what about NOTAMs and filing flight plans and other “official” functions? Why don’t we just revert to the great American equalizer? Money.
Let other providers go into the business of providing these services to pilots. Watch a beautiful, pilot-centric system evolve. Heck, it’s already happening. Many third-party flight planning tools include a DUATS briefing but then go a step further by charting the information graphically, accounting for winds in flight planning, optimizing altitudes and routes, and so on.
The providers who don’t provide good service will be dealt with swiftly. The ones who do can be paid by the services they provide — using LockMart’s former budget.
Let’s be sensible. As pilots, let’s use the best resources available to us. In most cases, that’s not going to include a call to AFSS.
And even in those rare instances where you’re off the network at some remote field and can’t get online, just call a friend and have them go online for you. They’ll probably do as good a job as you’d get from the new, improved FSS guy, and you won’t have to listen to all those wonderful menu options.
Ross Russo is a long-haul freight dog and aircraft owner who’s happily living AFSS-free.