The promise of FSS 21 will soon become a reality. Here's what it looks like from the inside.
by Jeff Van West
Just over one year ago - October 4, 2005, to be exact - Lockheed Martin took over the duties of the 58 Automated Flight Service Stations. The moment they did, most pilots noticed . well, not a whole lot. The same staff continued working with the same equipment and provided the same services. A new call-routing system cut down the wait times at peak usage, but it was mostly business as usual.
Starting in February 2007, that will begin to change. The new Flight Service Hub at Leesburg, Va., will come online with its new equipment and new services. Over the course of next year the remaining 56 flight service stations will be pared down to 20. (Milleville Flight Service's roof collapsed, so they are already shut down.) The new Leesburg station is almost complete right now, and it sure looks pretty inside.
Airport to Office Park Don't expect a walk-in briefing at the Leesburg Hub. It's 10 miles from the airport in a nondescript office park. It took me five minutes just to find the right door. Go inside, though, and it's an FSS paradise, complete with a plasma TV-equipped break room, gymnasium with showers, and a 100-seat operations center that rivals the TRACONs for technology and comfort.
Michael Chambers, the Director for the Eastern Service Area of the new Flight Service, sat with me in the conference room overlooking the nearly completed operations center and gave me the big picture. The new flight service system is designed around three service areas - Eastern, Central, and Western. Each one has its own operations hub, in Leesburg, Va., Fort Worth, Texas, and Prescott, Ariz. respectively. Each service area is also retaining several of the legacy flight service stations that will be renovated and tied into one central database.
Each new Flight Service Special-
ist workstation is identical. What the
screens show changes depending on
which specialist logs in, to whom they're
talking, and where that pilot is in the
country. The left two screens are for
weather and fl ightplan data. The right-
hand one is touch-sensitive with "but-
tons" for appropriate remote radios and
landlines. The projection screen gives
the big weather picture for all the spe-
cialists in that quadrant of the room.
That database is the crux of what's new in FSS21. The information available to briefers will be virtually the same as today, but all of it will be available to any briefer anywhere in the country. Filed your flight plan in Seattle but need it in Des Moines? It's there without calling around.
Lockheed divided the U.S. into 15 geographical areas chosen for generally similar weather patterns. Each specialist will be qualified with expertise in two of these geographic areas and a database is being created now with local area knowledge for all 15. This, combined with some call routing software, is supposed to get you the most knowledgeable briefer in the shortest time.
When you call 1-800-WX-BRIEF now, your call is routed to the nearest AFSS by your area code. That's why calling from your cell phone brings up your home AFSS rather than the one nearest you. Under the new system, you'll be asked what state you're departing from. If you say "Florida," the system will find a briefer with Florida expertise logged on somewhere in the country. Since most briefers will be expert in their home areas, it will probably be someone in Florida. If all the Florida experts are swamped, the system will get you someone with expertise somewhere in the southeast, and so on.
You could work down the tree and end up with a briefer in St. Paul who's pretty sure Florida is a state, but that would mean every other specialist is the country was busy. Even then, the local-area knowledge database would help them out. There may be an option to wait for a local briefer if you want, and there will be a bypass option so you don't have to say a departure state every time.
The local knowledge database will be available to you, too. Right now www.afss.com is mostly marketing copy. Next year, you will be able to log on and see exactly the same screens the briefer is seeing while you brief. They may not see all you can, though. There will be no open internet access in the operations center. (Too tempting to check those eBay items, I suppose.)
You can also store your pilot profiles online so your name, numbers, aircraft, and preferred routes automatically appear for the briefer, if you're calling from a phone number you registered.
The New FSS day During the wee hours of the morning, the three hubs will be the only occupied AFSS in the country. Of the four quadrants at the 100-seat AFSS in Leesburg, only part of one quadrant would be staffed. It would handle all AFSS functions for the eastern third of the country. As the sun rose, more staff would come in and the eastern legacy AFSS locations would come online. Staffing would vary through the day and revert to the three hubs by evening.
The Lockheed vision of your AFSS: Three divisions with 20 stations spread over 15 geographical areas of the country.
Why keep the legacy stations at all if everything can be done from the hub? "We were worried that we couldn't keep enough people - and get them to move," said Chambers. "So we took the middle road."
Lockheed says that even after those folks retire, further centralization is not in the plan, but since the cost savings of the new system are primarily through reduced staffing and upkeep - from over 1400 Flight Service Specialists down to under 1000 - the handwriting may be on the wall for some of those remote locations.
It's no coincidence the Prescott, Ariz., hub is also the home of Embry-Riddle University. The western hub is where the new AFSS academy is located. In fact, the first two academy classes were held on the Embry-Riddle campus. Many of the academy students are Embry-Riddle grads who compared a $45,000 per year job to flying regional jets and eating Ramen noodles once a day and chose a ground-based job.
For the old fogies coming over to the new AFSS, they'll get three days of training to get up to speed on the new system. Bill Lukens is a 20-year FAA veteran and the current Leesburg AFSS Operations Supervisor. He has the admirable job of helping make this transition and handle the complex scheduling. He noted that Flight Service had historically been a catchall for a bunch of miscellaneous tasks.
"Each flight service has its own idiosyncrasies. Southern stations did a lot of customs. Green Bay dealt with Oshkosh," said Lukens. "When they actually tallied it up it was a pretty amazing list." Some of that work is going to local FSDOs, some is going to specific ATC facilities, and so on. Lockheed only agreed to take care of the traditional Flight Service roles.
Issues like this will make the next two years "a real bear" according to Lukens, and have been the source of a diminishing projected savings for a privatized AFSS. But Lukens is still optimistic.
"Lockheed moves fast, and they make some mistakes, but they correct those mistakes. The thing with the FAA is that they took forever to make a decision, but then it was set in stone and you just sat there and watched the train wreck."
We're all on the FSS21 train like it or not. Stay tuned to see what happens when that train reaches its first station at Leesburg, Va., in February of next year.