Lawmakers move to block outsourcing of flight service jobs

A House lawmaker earlier this week introduced legislation to block the Federal Aviation Administration from contracting out more than 2,000 flight service jobs.

The Federal Aviation Safety Security Act, sponsored by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., would classify flight service jobs as "inherently governmental," thereby shielding them from a planned move to the private sector. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., will introduce a companion bill next week.

Flight service specialists recommend routes, provide weather briefings and notify pilots of flight restrictions. They work primarily with noncommercial aircraft and are spread across 61 locations in the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

In an effort to upgrade technology and reduce the expense of running the stations, estimated at about $500 million a year, FAA officials ran a public-private job competition encompassing work at 58 of the stations. The contest excluded three stations in Alaska. Lockheed Martin Corp. beat three other blue chip companies and an in-house team in that contest, and is scheduled to take over the flight service jobs in October.

The outsourcing of flight service work would endanger pilots and passengers, Sanders said. The specialists provide critical information that could prevent collisions, he noted.

"When it comes to safety standards, [work] shouldn't go out to the lowest bidder," Sanders said. "Tracking weather, for example, requires a great deal of knowledge and experience."

The decision also hurts dedicated longtime civil servants, Sanders said. Many of the employees affected by the decision already are eligible to retire, but others are just years away from earning full government benefits.

A flight service station in Burlington, Vt., a city in Sanders' district, is one of 38 that Lockheed plans to eventually close. The contractor has offered jobs to all of the specialists affected by the contest, but to take advantage of an offer for three years of guaranteed employment, employees at the stations slated to close would need to move to one of three hub locations: Fort Worth, Texas; Leesburg, Va., or Prescott, Ariz.

Figures provided by Sanders' office indicate that 1,044 flight service specialists work at the 38 stations scheduled to close. Of those, 32 work at the Burlington station and another 16 work at a station in Huron, S.D.

Johnson, the South Dakota Democrat planning to advance companion legislation in the Senate next Wednesday, also is worried about safety. Under Lockheed's plan, inquiries that employees at the Huron station used to field would be routed to Denver, Colo., and Princeton, Minn. Expertise in local weather patterns could get lost in the mix, a Democratic aide noted.

The legislation marks a last-ditch attempt at saving the federal flight service jobs, as the FAA announced the decision to grant Lockheed the work two months ago. Securing the bill's passage in time to help the affected federal employees will be "a heavy lift, but something worth doing," the aide said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Sanders had rounded up 27 co-sponsors for the House version of the bill. Most are Democrats but there are some Republicans on the list, he said. He plans to rally support around the safety issue and will reintroduce the measure later this year in the form of an amendment to an appropriations bill.

The legislative movement marks an attempt to "stop the competition simply because folks don't like the outcome," said David Safavian, administrator of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy. "While we have not seen any legislative language yet, I would point out that last year, the president would have vetoed the omnibus [appropriations bill] had restrictions on competitive sourcing been included in the final package," he said. "There has been no change in our commitment to the initiative."

Greg Martin, an FAA spokesman, declined to comment on the viability of the legislation, but said that the flight service jobs fail to meet the Office of Management and Budget's "stringent" criteria for an "inherently governmental" classification on Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act lists. To qualify as inherently governmental, work must: "involve a sovereign act on behalf of the government or an act that binds the government to a particular course of action," he said.

"No reasonable person would suggest that helping file flight plans and providing weather briefings meets that criteria," Martin said.

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