As we reflect on where we are and ponder resolutions for the coming year, I think of NextGen and some of the subtle, but significant, experiences of the past year. The NextGen we need requires change. Yet, we know change does not come easily. In fact, I have seen a recurring resistance to change.
In any specific instance, an individual or organization would appear to have some rational basis for resisting change. In some cases, the rationale is pretty clear. A labor organization doesn’t want its members to lose jobs or Congressmen and their constituents don’t want to lose the revenue associated with a federal facility in their district. In other cases, people don’t want to deal with taking on a lot more work or headaches. They say that the contemplated change is not operationally feasible, there will be workload issues, or the technological changes are too complicated. Or, we can’t get all the stakeholders to agree, or one of the stakeholders will object and block the desired change. NextGen has been subjected to all of these kinds of resistance to change. Is it any wonder why it’s been so hard to get it rolling forward? Why changes so far have been either innocuous on one hand or pretty miraculous on the other?
I think it’s useful to reflect on an object lesson from a few years ago: the outsourcing of Automated Flight Service Stations. When this first occurred in 2003-2004, I used to quietly talk about this event as an object lesson. I feel that enough time has passed to be able to talk more openly about it now, especially since I think it’s relevant to today’s insidious resistance to change and its impact on NextGen.
Flight Service Stations (FSS) seem like they had existed since the dawn of aviation. When I first joined the FAA in 1980, there were 318 FSSs, most of which were located at airports and fixed base operator locations where general aviation pilots could readily access them to get preflight weather briefings and file their flight plans. They were typically set up with walk-up counters, where pilots could interact with FSS specialists. FSSs also provided in-flight advisories to general aviation pilots.
By the mid-1980s, technology had progressed to a point where pilots could access weather briefings and do their flight planning and filing first over the telephone and then later via home computer. The growing use of remote pilot access and other technology made it attractive to consolidate FSSs into 61 Automated Flight Service Stations (AFSS). While the business case for this change was clearly compelling, there was resistance from nearly every quadrant. The FAA’s program manager faced all of this resistance and did a masterful job dealing with it. In the end, manual FSSs for Alaska were retained, but the consolidation was allowed to occur throughout the rest of the system.
As we progressed into the 1990s, changes continued to affect the AFSS landscape. You could clearly see it in the data. The demand for human-based preflight briefings continued to decline significantly with each passing year, like a straight line moving in a downward direction. During that period, I visited an AFSS and noted how little activity seemed to be going on. I was told that the weather was beautiful that day, and that they would be swamped on a poor weather day. So, I waited for a period of poor weather and returned to observe the operation. During my visit that lasted all morning, the peak number of calls was four. I was in a camp that felt that all preflight briefings and flight filing could be done remotely by computer and only with an occasional need for human interaction that could be handled by exception; and in-flight assistance could easily be done out of en route centers. I felt that AFSSs largely could be decommissioned. Yet, we were outvoted by those who felt that it was politically too difficult. After the difficulties in pushing through AFSSs just 10 years earlier, elimination of AFSSs was viewed as a “third rail issue.” So, in the 1990s, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the FAA made a major capital investment to modernize the automation systems in AFSSs. Funding is always in short supply, so this capital investment was particularly expensive in terms of opportunity cost.
By the early 2000s, less than 10 years later, demand had continued to decline. Other capital investments were up for consideration if we were to continue to operate AFSSs. Yet the supply and demand curves for this type of service continued to diverge. It happened that the Bush administration around this time had initiated a program requiring federal agencies to out-source federally provided functions to the private sector if it made sense to do so. The requirement and procedure for out-sourcing was nothing new. It had long existed as an Office of Management and Budget guidance document, known as A-76. But, the Bush administration set hard requirements for each agency to do a minimum specified amount of out-sourcing. This was new.
The gap between AFSS supply and demand had become so great that it could no longer be concealed or ignored. When the out-sourcing edict was issued by the White House, AFSSs jumped out as something that was ripe for out-sourcing. So, this is how AFSSs became subject to A-76. Those people and organizations that currently provide the service are allowed to complete with alternatives to out-source the service. If sufficient efficiencies can be extracted by the incumbents, they can beat the out-sourcing alternatives and win the opportunity to make those changes to continue providing the service. But, if one of the out-sourcing alternatives wins, then the service is out-sourced. Once something enters the A-76 process, it simply must run its course. There is little opportunity to exert external influence over the outcome. It’s essentially taken out of your hands.
In early 2005, the AFSS function was out-sourced via an FAA contract awarded to Lockheed Martin. The out-sourcing proposal called for consolidating nearly 60 AFSSs into three major hub facilities located in Virginia, Texas and Arizona. By this decision about 2,700 FAA employee positions were eliminated. Efforts were made to place FSS specialists in other parts of the FAA where job requirements and skills could be matched, but very few FAA reassignments were possible. A good many FSS specialists accepted positions with Lockheed Martin and were required to move to one of the three hub locations. Many chose to not move and had to look for new employment. The termination of all of these FAA employees was one of the most painful experiences in recent FAA history. It was a tragedy. It especially was a tragedy because it could have been averted.
The object lesson for me is this: When you continue to resist change in the face of a growing need for change, the magnitude of change grows. You reach a point where the need for change is so great and so obvious that the problem suddenly is taken out of your hands, and then change happens quickly, perhaps with a bang. No one is happy with the outcome. Many suffer huge amounts of pain because the change is so sudden and so great. Much of it could have been avoided if the need for change had been met with incremental change over time.
As we enter this New Year, let’s be more receptive to change. Let’s embrace the changes required by NextGen. We know that demand for air travel is largely driven by the health of the economy. It’s only a matter of time before the US economy turns around. When it does, delays could go through the roof. Ticket prices will too. The ills of the aviation system will return to page 1 of the daily newspapers. The gap between supply and demand will be so great that it won’t be tolerated. It will be taken out of the hands that currently control it. Change will then be sudden, and there will be a lot of pain. We can act now to avoid that kind of outcome—and avoid being run over by the need for change.