Unintended consequences

In the U.S., in an attempt to avoid user fees for general aviation, AOPA (the main G.A. advocacy group) worked with the FAA to outsource flight services (briefings, VFR flight plans, etc.) to Lockheed-Martin. AOPA didn’t realize that they were about to break the whole system.

The system broke badly — while some calls do get through, there are numerous reports of dropped calls, 30+ minute wait times, confused briefers, and more. For U.S. pilots, it’s almost as if flight services has ceased to exist, and judging from discussion on the mailing lists, they’ve pretty-much stopped filing VFR flight plans (which aren’t mandatory in the U.S.) except when required for ADIZ or cross-border flights.

Pilot, clear thyself

Things have gotten so bad that there’s now a new wiki, ClearanceWiki, devoted entirely to collecting information on how to pick up IFR clearances from small airports without having to call Flight Services — it lists radio frequencies or direct ATC phone numbers that are or might be available at each airport.

When I couldn’t close my flight plan

My own experience with Lockheed-Martin’s new U.S. FSS has been mixed. I appreciate that I can now call from a Canadian landline or cell phone to reach U.S. flight services (when the FAA ran the system, non-U.S. area codes were blocked), and most of the time I have been able to get through (do foreign callers get better service?), but I’ve had some bad experiences.

The worst was last week, when I landed at Alexandria Bay/Maxson in Upstate NY to clear customs. I had filed a cross-border VFR flight plan (as required by law), but Maxson has no RCO frequency, and I could not get through to anyone by phone to close the flight plan while my search-and-rescue time fast approached. I decided that my best bet was to take off and climb until I could reach someone (I also had to pick up an IFR clearance for the rest of the flight, but it was VFR in Maxson).

Once in the air, I explained the problem to Wheeler-SAC approach at Fort Drum, and they started trying to reach FSS for me on their own dedicated lines, also with no success (they were able to give me my IFR clearance quickly, though). Finally, I was high enough to pick up a Burlington RCO transceiver, and at the same time, Burlington had heard enough of a call from Wheeler-SAC (before the line went dead) to close my flight plan.

Not ideal in Canada, but better

While I’d rather not pay my ~$75 annual Nav Canada fee and the avgas tax, and I’m seriously p*ssed with the extra $10/takeoff fee coming up for using big airports like CYOW, we do get excellent FSS service here in Canada. I almost never wait on hold on the phone for a Nav Canada briefer, and when I do, it’s usually a few seconds at most; in fact, a couple of times I’ve called Nav Canada from the U.S. to get a briefing because I can’t get through to U.S. flight services — they’re always understanding and happy to help.

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3 Responses to Unintended consequences

  1. Jason says:

    Yeah, especially when the transition to Lockheed first took place FSS was really in bad shape. We had to wait 15 minutes on hold once to close a VFR flight plan.

    However, I’ve used it a few times in the last month and had a good experience – very little if any time on hold.

    Maybe I’ve just been getting lucky. 🙂

  2. david says:

    Jason: I wondered the same thing, because most of the time, I get through no problem. However, it’s already failed me a couple of times when I really needed it (I mentioned one in the posting).

    I think I’m not getting the full L-M system, yet — some pilots in the south get an automated system asking them for their state, while I always get the NY International Flight Services Station (maybe because of my foreign area code).

  3. mike says:

    Hi Guys,

    I have just come across David´s blog and I have to say it´s interesting to see the differences in each country. I live and work in Spain and it can also get frustrating at times and the beaurocracy is special here (they love their paperwork – computers are just for show!). I think it is a good idea for pilots to try to gain valuable experience by flying in as many other countries as possible.

    Anyway, keep up the good work David.



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