Options running out for opponents of FAA outsourcing

Denial of bid protest moves FAA one step closer to October transfer date of flight service operations to Lockheed Martin.

With the denial of two bid protests last week, the Federal Aviation Administration is on track to hand flight service work to Lockheed Martin Corp. in early October, an agency official said Tuesday.

The transfer of work on Oct. 4 would represent a "tremendous victory for us all," said Joann Kansier, director of the FAA's Office of Competitive Sourcing. The 10-year, $1.9 billion contract is expected to produce $2.2 billion in savings over baseline spending on flight services in fiscal 2003.

But opponents of the decision say the contract will deprive a number of the flight service specialists--who provide weather briefings, information on flight restrictions and other pre- and in-flight navigational advice primarily for pilots flying private planes-of federal retirement benefits they had earned, and will jeopardize safety.

Should these opponents succeed at blocking the contract, the FAA stands to pay more than $300 million in penalty fees and would lose the expected savings, the Office of Management and Budget has estimated.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey's July 20 decision to follow a General Services Administration Board of Contract Appeals judge's advice and reject two cases challenging the February award is a good sign, Kansier said. But the contract still faces several potential obstacles.

Lawmakers could pass legislation that would block the outsourcing, for example, though the effort appears to have lost some momentum.

House members in late June approved an amendment to their version of the Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill (H.R. 3058) that would bar the FAA from using 2006 funds to transfer the work. The language has yet to gain traction in the Senate, however.

In April, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., sponsored a bill that would force FAA to cancel the contract. But he missed an opportunity to introduce an amendment to the Senate version of the Transportation-Treasury appropriations bill during committee deliberations last week.

Johnson was unable to attend the appropriations committee markup because he was involved in negotiations over a separate piece of legislation, said Joshua Rosenblum, a spokesman. The South Dakota senator did, however, send a letter to appropriations subcommittee chairman Kit Bond, R-Mo., and ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., encouraging them to deny the FAA $150 million requested to implement the outsourcing decision.

"The FAA's proposal will lead to decreased safety for pilots of small planes because they will no longer be talking to personnel familiar with regional weather and topography," the July 1 letter stated. "The consolidated system will strain service capability because fewer employees will be responsible for a growing system of general air traffic." The letter was signed by Johnson, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

The committee awarded the full funding despite the letter. Senators will have another chance to introduce an amendment when the full Senate takes up the Transportation-Treasury bill.

Johnson is "working with his colleagues . . . to find the best way to stop these implementation funds from being appropriated," Rosenblum said, but has not decided whether to offer an amendment.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., also has expressed strong opposition to the outsourcing decision. "I will do everything I can to ensure this ill-advised privatization does not proceed," he said in a recent statement. Spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said Monday that he is working "to try to get some sort of legislation," but has not settled on the details.

Kansier said she remains confident she made the right choice. The public-private competition encompassed about 2,500 jobs, making it the largest to date and attractive to bidders willing to invest in significant technological upgrades, she said. She encouraged other agencies to follow FAA's lead and run contests large and "bold" enough to result in meaningful savings for taxpayers.

"This is not a job for the meek or the mild," Kansier said. "This is really a job for the people who want to make a difference."

Kansier spoke on a panel at the Excellence in Government conference, a three-day event co-sponsored by Government Executive.