Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Times they are a Changin'?

The two vendors that supply free, on-line briefing services to U.S. pilots have warned the flying public that there could be efforts a foot to terminate the services they offer within the a year or two. What would replace these two services? Well the new, Lockheed Martin FSS web site, of course!

The jury is still out for me regarding Lockheed Martin's takeover and day-to-day operation of the Flight Service Stations in the U.S. On one hand, they have done some good things - changed their phone interface so that calling from a cell phone connects you to the FSS for the area where you are located instead of the area associated with your cell phone's area code. It was always a bit disconcerting for me to dial 1-800-WXBRIEF in San Diego and hear "Welcome to the Oakland Flight Service Station." The briefers to whom I have spoken are still very professional and knowledgeable. They are mostly friendly - perhaps a bit more friendly than before Lockheed Martin took over, but that's hard to quantify.

I give Lockheed Martin poor marks in the amount of time one can spend waiting to talk to a briefer. On several occasions last winter, I sat on the south field at Oakland for over an hour waiting for freight. Before I made my way from the north field, I would get a DUAT briefing using my laptop. There was no internet access on the south field freight ramp. By the time the freight was available and the loading began, I needed an updated briefing and my only option was to call FSS on my cell phone.

On at least four occasions last winter I sat on hold for over 15 minutes waiting to talk to a briefer before hanging up. At these time I would either call another company pilot who I knew was still waiting at the north field or my dispatcher and ask them to tell me what the NEXRAD images looked like for my route. Launching into potential thunderstorms and icing without being able to talk to FSS really irked me. And there continue to be times when I sit on hold for several minutes. I wouldn't be making such a big deal of this were it not for the fact that Lockheed Martin made a big deal of how time spent waiting would be reduced once they took over. I just don't see much truth in that claim.

I use both DUAT and DUATS regularly, since I never know what my students will prefer. I personally have a soft spot for DUAT, but both companies offer excellent service. When I was a freight dog, I relied heavily on DUAT for briefings and for filing IFR flight plans when I was dispatched for unscheduled, ad hoc flights. In all the years I've used it, DUAT was unavailable on only a handful of occasions. When it was, I used DUATS.

The Lockheed Martin FSS web site is pretty basic right now, though it does offer good instructional information on pre-flight briefings and a few weather products. You can register yourself and get a userid and password, but the pre-flight briefing features are just stubs at the moment. Still, you can see that they plan to offer the same features as DUAT and DUATS at some point in the future.

The potential demise of DUAT and DUATS is bad for general aviation because I foresee both a single point of failure and a convenient choke hold on non-commercial pilots. The single point of failure issue is pretty easy to see - Lockheed Martin's servers go down, no on-line briefings. The choke hold is not as easy to see coming, but my crystal ball shows that once the FAA has reduced the options for pre-flight briefings to one source - Lockheed Martin - being charged for a briefing will not be far away.

And apparently the Lockheed Martin arrangement would have none of the current contractual obligations for features and level of service that were put into place for DUAT and DUATS. Nothing like competition and privatization, eh?

If you are a faithful user of DUAT or DUATS, I recommend that you write you congressional representative as well as your senators and voice your opposition to the cancellation of these important services. With high fuel costs and threats of ATC and FSS pay-for-service, GA is on a slippery slope and it just keeps getting more slippery.

We may be witnessing the end of the Golden Age of GA, but I hope not.


Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on using http://aviationweather.gov as a weather source verses using Duat(s)?

John said...

I think the ADDS weather site is a great resource, but the data is provides is not considered an official briefing for several reasons. One is that your name or aircraft tail number is not recorded. The other is that you need NOTAM information for a briefing to provide "all available information" as required by 14 CFR 91.103.

RJ Wannabe said...

I hear you about the Lockheed Martin thing. Any time one company gets a government contract, service suffers. I really like DUAT and will miss it if it goes away.

One bright spot:

I toured the Prescott FSS last month. The guy that gave the tour was the last remaining FAA employee. Everyone else was Lockheed Martin. They are building a new FSS in Prescott Valley that will cover the Western US. The current FSS has less than 30 employees. The new one will eventually employ 400. He said hold times should go down dramatically in 2007.

I'm sure Lockheed Martin will push for user fees very soon. If we don't fight for ourselves, it's going to be just like Europe where it will cost $300 an hour to fly a Cessna and price most private pilots out of GA.