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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Keeping the Skies Safe

Seattle has historically had an aeronautical presence with Boeing. We have two international airports that serve major airlines and light planes. The Regional FAA is headquartered in Auburn, but what you may not know is that in 2005 Lockheed Martin took over the job of weather briefing pilots. The job was privatized.

FAA briefers who had enough time in with the government retired, many of them going to work for Lockheed. Those who did not have enough time in to retire were told that they would be found other jobs in the FAA and keep their seniority. Many were encouraged to stay on with Lockheed because the company needed trained employees to continue doing weather briefings while they revamped the organization and trained new briefers.

Promises were made on both sides, from the FAA and Lockheed that have not been kept in many instances. The computer program Lockheed had written did not begin to equal the system previously used in any way except that it can access information nationwide.

Employees have struggled to give pilots good information about their flight plan and keep them safe. Every time a plane disappears the briefers involved take it personally. Airports along their route are checked by phone or, in the case of unmanned small airports, getting someone to check what planes are parked at the airstrip. I’ve done it myself in Ilwaco when my husband, who has worked at Seattle Flight Service for 19 years, has called me at our summer house and asked me to drive the two miles to the Ilwaco airstrip and see if a particular plane was there.

Sometimes the planes never turn up or are found on a mountainside in the Cascades or Olympic mountains. The briefer who last talked to them is upset by the loss, wondering if there was something more they should have told the pilot. Tapes of calls are reviewed. Even when it was not the fault of the briefer, which is generally the case, losing a pilot haunts the briefer.

Briefers take their job seriously and have not looked favorably on the takeover by Lockheed. Some who stayed on following the takeover quit after the new system was in place. Some have left or transferred as Lockheed has closed down facilities around the country. Pilots who call for a briefing and to file a flight plan may or may not be talking to someone familiar with the area they will be flying through. In theory the system Lockheed has in place is supposed to give briefers all over the country information about anyplace, but in practice pilots are not getting the same service they did under the FAA. And it is only going to get worse.

The economy has impacted Lockheed and the air industry. Closures have been sped up and experienced briefers encouraged to retire. Seattle Flight Service has not received a closure date, but is down to a skeleton crew. They are no longer open 24/7. Call after 11 PM and you will be talking to a briefer in Prescott, AZ, one of the legacy sites that will remain open. Recently a Prescott manager was in Seattle for the funeral of a Prescott employee who was from here and had committed suicide.

Most people do not realize that a vital part of the FAA was privitized. It has gone largely ignored by the media. If you’re interested in reading what a briefer has to say about the situation click here. This is a link to an emotional blog written by one. If you are a pilot, please know that weather briefers are still attempting to give you the best possible information, but are doing it with one hand tied behind their backs. Sometimes taking a service out of the hands of government is a mistake.

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