Wade's world

An FAA employee goes head-to-head with contractor heavyweights.

If you want to compete for the richest, most technically complex federal contracts, you need a stable of skilled subcontractors, a track record of managing huge projects and a team of market-savvy executives. Or you need to be Jay Wade.

For more than a year, Wade, a 51-year-old employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, has been angling to bid in a massive public-private job competition at the FAA. The infrastructure at 58 flight service stations in the United States is at stake, as are 2,700 flight service specialist positions, one of which belongs to Wade. But instead of defending his job alongside other FAA workers on an in-house team that is competing to retain the work, Wade wants to compete through a company-Wade & Associates-that he created to bid in the contest.

Wade & Associates has no clients and no revenue. It has a workforce of three. At the moment, company headquarters is Wade's house in Franklin, Tenn. He knows his enterprise lacks the cachet of other firms eyeing the FAA competition-such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the A-list companies that plan to submit bids. "We're a startup, going for a $2 billion contract out of the box," Wade says.

Observers don't know what to make of Wade. "I'm not exactly sure what he is doing," says Wally Pike, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, the labor union that is backing the in-house team. Robert McMullen, FAA's program manager for the in-house team, says firms like Wade & Associates usually serve as subcontractors in competitions this size. "Frankly, it's going to be a big contract. Normally, you'd see a large company and then see smaller [subcontractors] like Mr. Wade's company under them," he says.

But Wade bristles at the notion that he can't go toe-to-toe with the Lockheeds of the world over flight service, his passion for the past 22 years. "They probably don't think I'm qualified," he says, his voice rising. "Well, I got a quote for you. This contract manager has personally done over 150,000 pilot weather briefings without a single weather-related accident, so I think I'm profoundly qualified."

Besides providing weather briefings to pilots, flight service specialists orient lost aircraft, assist in search-and-rescues, and monitor temporary flight restriction zones. Specialists do not separate air traffic. That's the job of their better-known cousins, air traffic controllers. The specialist workforce is aging, and relies on expensive, outdated infrastructure-it cost $514 million to operate the stations in fiscal 2002-making the employees a ripe target for competitive sourcing.

FAA officials view the competition as a way to modernize the agency's flight service function, and observers expect to see a series of technology-heavy bids. In January, the in-house team joined forces with Harris Corp., a Florida-based firm that holds several information technology contracts with the FAA, to produce a joint bid. The highly unusual pairing is expected to boost the prospects of agency workers in the contest.

As a current flight service specialist, Wade is represented by the in-house/Harris alliance, according to McMullen. But Wade insists on submitting his own proposal, in part because he disagrees with the strategy he believes the in-house team will use. "The grapevine rumor I'm hearing is they are hoping to survive [the competition] by taking pay cuts and downsizing," he says. "But I don't think that is necessary."

McMullen says the in-house team is still crafting its proposal. "We haven't decided on what our plans are going to be to date, but if [Wade] sticks to the status quo, good luck to him," he says.

Wade's effort is so unusual that competitors speculate about his motives. Privately, some suggest he has ties to NAATS, and is only in the running to advance its agenda, perhaps by filing a bid protest at some point. But Pike, the president of NAATS, says Wade does not belong to his union. Wade, for his part, is critical of the labor union, and says he has ties with flight service specialists who are not union members. "The union hasn't stood up for us over the past few years," he says. "I'm just trying to bid on my job, and help other people who aren't in the union and don't believe the [in-house team] is in our best interests.

"All I want is the opportunity to compete," Wade says. "Is the Bush administration going to prevent me, a potentially displaced employee, from bidding on my own job?"

Wade already has cleared one procedural hurdle that threatened to end his quest. In January, the FAA asked prospective bidders to show that they had $110 million in cash reserves on hand. With no clients, Wade & Associates had no revenue. "What am I going to do, send them a copy of my lottery ticket?" he said at the time. But a few weeks later, the FAA dropped the requirement. "Nobody was more surprised than me that they did that," says Wade. There are now five potential prime contractors that could compete against the in-house team: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Computer Sciences Corp., Raytheon, and Wade & Associates. The FAA plans to issue a final solicitation in May, and will ask for proposals by late summer.

If Wade & Associates were to win the competition, Wade would have to retire-FAA employees are prohibited from holding contracts with the agency. Even Wade acknowledges the odds of this happening are slim. But he wants to compete. "I know it's a long shot, but this is my business, so I'm going to give it a try."

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