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Statement of Gary D. Simms
on behalf of the
National Association Of Air Traffic Specialists
National Civil Aviation Review Commission
May 28, 1997
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Commission:
My name is Gary D. Simms. I serve as Executive Director of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS). It is my privilege to present to you the views of the professional controllers of America's Flight Service Stations on FAA Financing, Productivity and Modernization.
FLIGHT SERVICE -- WHO WE ARE AND WHAT WE DO
Flight Service Controllers currently provide pilot briefing services, en route communications, VFR and IFR search and rescue services, assist lost aircraft and aircraft in unusual and/or emergency situations, and transmit ATC clearances. They originate and track NOTAMs, broadcast weather and NAS information, process IFR and VFR flight plans, take weather observations, issue airport and traffic advisories through radio communications, perform customs notifications, monitor navigational aids and provide coordination with other air traffic facilities. Flight Service Controllers provide these services to private, commercial, military and government aircraft 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
It historically has been the responsibility of the Flight Service Controller to prepare a pilot for flight. Various tasks must be performed quickly and accurately. The Flight Service Controller has, as a primary function, the goal of preparing a pilot to conduct a particular flight, supporting that flight by updating various types of information, and performing other duties that are required by regulation. Pilots have to know the operational and the safety considerations for a particular flight. Is the weather conducive to the flight? Are required navigational aids available to the pilot? What particular ATC and FAA services will be required? What services are available to the pilot along his or her route of flight and at the destination? Is there a better or more efficient way to conduct the flight?
The FAA's decision to change to a structure of 61 Automated Flight Service Stations instead of the more than 300 smaller facilities that existed only a few years ago has resulted in a reduction of services provided to our customers. In many instances, our customers find that our services are more difficult to access. In addition, we have largely lost the face-to-face interaction that was a hallmark of critical safety and service to the flying public. One of the original premises of the automation concept -- and the reduction to 61 facilities -- was increased efficiency. The concept in its present form has only marginally increased efficiency, and this marginal increase has come at a considerable cost: The automation concept has resulted in the removal of personalized service and one-to-one accountability.
The public does not like the result, as has been shown in numerous surveys and reports in aviation journals. As a result, there must be a concerted effort to reverse the process of anonymity. As computerized information becomes increasingly available, and as traffic continues to increase (both commercial and general aviation) the need for close personal contact between the pilot and the Flight Service Controller will continue to grow. NAATS supports the return of personalized service for users with an increase of efficiency. These two goals are not mutually exclusive!
As federal employees, we believe that some functions of society are best served by government. NAATS believes that the nature of the services provided by Flight Service Controllers demand that the federal government through the FAA continue to play a direct role in this critical area for the foreseeable future. We further believe that the expertise and experience of the Flight Service Controllers make them a unique asset to the Nation's aviation system, and particularly to General Aviation.
FAA FINANCING: A PROBLEM, NOT A CRISIS
We at NAATS recognize that the potential for funding deficiencies exist, given the planned retention of the current operational system and environment. Without change, straight-line projections imply an ever-widening gap between the ability of the FAA to perform its current level of activities and the receipt of the funds necessary to support those functions. This line of thinking has lead the Administration to describe a funding "crisis" when in fact the FAA has been provided with adequate resources with which to accomplish its mission. While the Congressional budget assumptions over the next seven-year period imply a limitation of potential financial resources, they do not imply that Congress will permit the agency to close down any significant part of its activities.
The FAA cannot continue to operate with the same culture that has prevented change in the past. We also believe that major changes in the ways in which work is performed can enhance productivity, reduce costs, and transform the current operating environment into one that can fully support expanded demands on FAA resources.
In its submissions to Congress, the FAA has assumed an annual growth in the operating budget of almost 6%. This is much higher than the rate experienced over the past 5 years -- and almost twice the expected increase in inflation. In addition, the recent independent assessment conducted by Coopers & Lybrand points out that air traffic control operational costs are increasing faster than the demand for air traffic control services themselves. We believe that by taking steps to enhance productivity in air traffic control through new equipment and better training and in field reorganization, that the rate of operating budget increases can be reduced without reducing existing manpower or service levels.
It was not long ago that the Administration lobbied for the creation of an Air Traffic Control Corporation, and maintained that an ATC Corporation was needed so that it can go to the capital markets to secure adequate funding for future equipment purchases and other necessary procurement for the 21st century. Funding levels for FAA procurement have remained as high as or higher than virtually any other governmental body during the past decade. While this point of view seems to have faded, it is lurking in a variety of guises -- including those who would support fee for service.
It is our position that the users already pay the bills in large part through the taxes and fees already incurred. Further, the system is a national asset, with substantial public benefit, which deserves resources from the general fund.
Overall, the FAA has been well funded, and we see no evidence that the current sources of funding will dry up in the future. However, this has not been the case with the operation of Flight Service Stations. We also believe that in dealing with the national asset of our Airspace system, the Congress must continue to play a vital role in oversight to ensure that the needs of all users of the system are considered carefully and impartially.
FAA PRODUCTIVITY: EQUIPMENT AND PERSONNEL
As technology develops for the aviation industry, Flight Service will continue to be the entity that converts or translates this technology into a usable format for pilots. This implies that the job complexity of the Flight Service Controller will of necessity increase. Technology will also increase the available range of services that a Flight Service controller is able to provide. By using instantaneous communications with other facilities and controllers, the service provided to the public will be enhanced. The interpersonal relationship that was historically available between Flight Service controllers and the public can be reestablished even after having been allowed to deteriorate over the past few years.
For those of us in Flight Service, the critical short-term technological requirement is OASIS.
Whenever the media report an FAA equipment failure or a facility going off-line, it is the men and women working the air traffic control system who keep it operating -- and who safeguard the lives of air travelers. While outages at radar facilities and control towers receive most of the publicity, they also occur at Flight Service Stations, inconveniencing the flying public and posing a hazard to the safety and the efficiency of aviation. We are the ones whose knowledge and experience can override the shortcomings of our equipment. As you may be aware, the FAA has designated the OASIS system as the replacement for current antiquated, outmoded Model One Full Capacity computer equipment in AFSSs. In fact, OASIS is one of the original three "lead the fleet" examples of the new procurement authority at the FAA, which went into effect on April 1, 1996.
Mr. Chairman, and Commission Members, there are 61 Automated Flight Service Stations in America, plus a handful of smaller, seasonal facilities in Alaska. Each was established to replace more than a dozen Flight Service Stations more than a decade ago. Each AFSS is equipped with an antiquated, outdated Model 1 Full Capacity computer system. Each needs to be replaced by an OASIS system. The contractors have indicated that because OASIS is based largely on commercially-available, off-the-shelf technology, that they would have no problem installing 61 systems within months of a successful operational testing and evaluation procedure.
Despite the need, the FAA continues its foot-dragging. The agency currently plans to purchase/lease only 20 systems in a "first phase" of procurement. This would presumably be followed by a second purchase of 20, and then a third and final purchase. This is an example of the FAA continuing to play politics with its procurement process. We all know that if all 61 units were purchased at one time, unit costs would be lower because the profit would not be front-loaded by the contractor. So from a strictly economic point of view, an immediate purchase of 61 systems makes the most sense. And as we pointed out already, the equipment needs to be replaced at each AFSS now -- not three or four years from now.
We think that the FAA has another agenda here. The FAA has been arguing for years that it needs "financial reform" (from user fees and similar sources) in large part so that it can have a "secure" funding source, free from "Congressional interference." We are concerned that the FAA is dividing this procurement in the hope that some form of independent financial reform, free from Congressional oversight, will in fact be adopted. The FAA would then be able to reduce the number of OASIS systems by consolidating AFSS facilities, unfettered by Congressional oversight.
We cannot wait for OASIS any longer -- and neither can our users. The current M1FC system is on the verge of data overload, today. With the introduction of METAR/TAF (ICAO-standard weather information format), the M1FC system is so overloaded that the agency was forced to reduce the storage of weather trending data from three hours to two hours. This is a threat to the safety of the pilots we brief and to their passengers. Quite simply, the FAA's real-time weather data bank has been reduced by one-third, reducing the safety margin for all who fly. Until OASIS is installed, this will be the case and is a very real threat to aviation safety and efficiency.
As this Commission should be aware, the FAA continues to spend millions every year on the Direct User Access Terminal System (DUATS). These costs will largely disappear when OASIS is installed, because OASIS will incorporate a DUATS-like function directly into Flight Service. This service can be continued for those of our customers who like to supplement their pilot briefings via this system. And in addition to saving millions each year, we will actually be able to provide even better service to our pilot customers, because the OASIS definition calls for an interactive DUATS capability, where a pilot can directly ask a Flight Service Controller specific questions about commonly-displayed data. The sooner OASIS is up and running, the sooner the FAA can save millions from this DUATS replacement feature. This is yet another reason why the FAA should proceed immediately with the OASIS procurement -- for all 61 AFSS facilities.
While we await the installation of OASIS, we face a critical problem in personnel. The FAA has told us that Flight Service will not hire another new employee from outside of the Air Traffic Division of the FAA for at least three years. There have been virtually no new hires into Flight Service for more than 10 years. This is tantamount to a decision to terminate our vital safety service. The FAA plans to reduce our numbers (primarily through attrition) for the future. This Commission should insist -- and do so forcefully -- that the controllers at Flight Service are part of the essential safety net for this nation's aviation industry, and that our numbers must be maintained and strengthened. We have been downsized already!
The Flight Service workforce is rapidly aging. In fact, 40-50% are eligible to retire today. By the year 2002, 80% of the workforce will be eligible to retire. It is of paramount importance to initiate a new training pipeline for employees in Flight Service. New employees would not increase the number of Air Traffic Controllers in Flight Service, but would merely maintain numbers at the current levels. The most recent figures available show that there are 2,456 Flight Service Controllers now, down over 200 from this time last year. The FAA itself projects continuing attrition of more than 150 highly trained Flight Service Controllers each year for the next several years.
However, while the ranks of Flight Service Controllers has been allowed to thin by almost 1000 since the PATCO strike in 1981, management and support staff at Flight Service Stations have fared much better. During the period of 1981 through 1995, the number of Flight Service management personnel has decreased by only six individuals. We have attached a chart to this statement detailing this attrition for your reference.
Staffing levels at many AFSSs are already reaching critical levels. Numbers are so low in some locations that many employees cannot even take annual leave because there simply are not enough people available to handle the workload.
Recognizing these critical staffing shortages we strongly urge this Commission to recommend that the FAA hire, train, and place 100 new Flight Service Controllers during FY '98, and an additional 100 in each of the three (3) fiscal years thereafter. Of course, this will not even maintain current staff numbers in Flight Service -- due to attrition through retirement -- but it is a step in the right direction.
Our President, Mike McAnaw, made the following recommendation to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, and I think you should consider it as well:
"Hire controllers into Flight Service first, and develop a pipeline of employees that can eventually transfer into towers, approach control, and en route centers. This pipeline of controllers would learn the importance of aviation weather, talk to pilots and get a sense of what the pilot needs and desires before the pilots become mere targets on radar screens. This will give future controllers a more thorough understanding of all phases of weather, aviation and the mission of the FAA."
FAA MODERNIZATION: PERSONNEL REFORM
As we approach the issue of FAA modernization, we must also focus on personnel reform. As mandated by the FY 1996 DOT Appropriations bill, we have been hard at work with the FAA trying to establish a framework for a new personnel system to take us into the next century. We have experienced a positive atmosphere in large part. Nevertheless, we must note that little has happened in terms of personnel reform at the work place. While we as an organization have been expending significant resources to support our involvement in the ongoing process of FAA personnel reform, the FAA has delayed or "back-burnered" the most significant changes, and has been satisfied to tinker around the edges.
For example, we worked very closely with the FAA to develop the Reorganization Plan, which would have implemented many of the goals of the Administration by reducing the number of supervisory and staff support positions. As we pointed out above, the number of Flight Service Controllers has dropped by almost a thousand, while other reductions have been not much more than a handful. The Reorganization Plan called for the gradual assumption of many staff, support, and supervisory duties by Flight Service Controllers, creating new efficiencies, and at the same time reducing the number of individuals in the supervisory and support ranks.
Unfortunately, this plan has been unceremoniously shelved by the FAA, and instead, one is now under consideration that maintains the status quo in most cases. We believe that an essential part of personnel reform must be a redistribution of duties and functions in a more efficient and enabling manner. Despite the FAA's major push for personnel reform two years ago, as we pointed out, little has happened as of yet. It now appears likely that for employees represented by labor organizations within the FAA, most changes will take place in the next round of collective bargaining, scheduled to begin later this year. This can be an unparalleled opportunity for the FAA and its employees to come together in a spirit of true Partnership, utilizing the latest techniques in consensus-driven problem resolution, to creatively resolve decades of less-than-satisfactory employee/management relations.
Instead of figuring out how we can work more effectively with less, some would suggest that Flight Service just do less. For example, many in the FAA have suggested that we reduce the number of AFSSs to some number less than the current 61 -- perhaps 20. This concept was included in the recent Coopers & Lybrand study, which points to potential savings through additional Flight Service Consolidation. We could not disagree more strongly. The original promise to users of Flight Service when consolidation was proposed was that service would be equal or better. Today, few would dispute that the level of service has deteriorated, with the loss of face-to-face briefings and increased off loading of calls to facilities far from the briefer's area of detailed -- and required -- personal familiarity. Additional consolidations would exacerbate these problems. Further, as the relationship between Flight Service Controllers and our customers is stifled through consolidation, the loss of familiarity between these partners in safety has resulted in a decrease of utilization of Flight Service controller expertise by the pilot community. The fact that the number of briefings or flight services provided has decreased is caused, according to the FAA, by a so-called reduction in demand. If demand has dropped, it is because the FAA has made contacting Flight Service controllers more difficult for the pilots, first through consolidation, and now through reductions in 800-lines (the latter a move that has been postponed due to public outcry).
On the issue of pay, the Coopers & Lybrand study suggests that reductions are a viable area for future "savings" for the FAA. We disagree most strongly. Depriving controllers of our pay and benefits -- when we are being asked to do more with less -- is a recipe for disaster. If the FAA wants to encourage experienced controllers to retire when they are eligible to do so, that is precisely the way to proceed. On the other hand, if the FAA wants to retain experienced and capable people, at the height of their productive career potential, then compensation needs to reflect the level of experience and responsibilities undertaken. FAA management understands this, and has begun participation with NAATS in the development of a new classification and compensation system designed to fairly and adequately compensate the controllers in Flight Service. We believe that the FAA can save enormous personnel expenses through the elimination of unnecessary levels of management and staff, leaving more of the personnel available to work the floors and man the boards at facilities around the country. Let us be more productive and let the work rules be less restrictive, and allow the working people to demonstrate real productivity enhancements to justify a fair level of compensation.
We stand ready to use any method or technique that will achieve what we believe are mutual goals: Increased productivity, greater employee responsibility, a pay system that is rational and appropriately rewarding, and a working environment where safety is the highest priority at all times. We challenge the FAA to be just as creative and open to new thinking and new ideas. We also suggest that this Commission watch these developments closely, and encourage FAA's representatives to "think outside of the box" when meeting with us and our fellow organizations at the bargaining table. We have an opportunity to make a unique contribution to the air traffic control system, and we are eager to do just that.
FAA Flight Service Station Staffing
1981 - 1995
(On December 31)
|Flight Service Controllers (GS-2152)||3,576||3,525||3,508||3,499||n/a||n/a||3,119||3,019||3,041||3,037||3,030||3,006||2,883||2,659||2,579||(997)|
|Supervisor, Manager, Other Personnel||929||797||836||824||n/a||n/a||1,098||1,113||1,075||1,113||1,137||1,111||1,076||951||923||(6)|
* No job classification data available for these two years.
Source: April 10, 1996, FAA Briefing by P. Kovalick, ATX-320
The National Association of Air Traffic Specialists
11303 Amherst Avenue, Suite 4
Wheaton, MD 20902