FAA Plans for FSS Modernization

FAA wants to overhaul the way it provides preflight briefings and related services to general aviation users. The agency has published a request for proposals for providers interested in offering services now available primarily through Leidos (via telephone at 1-800-wxbrief and the web at www.1800wxbrief.com) and via apps, such as ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot, FltPlan.com, FlyQ, and others.

AOPA has a summary of the proposal on its website, here. The key background document is the FAA Future Flight Services (FFS) Strategic Plan (PDF). For more information about this shift, see Declining Demand for FSS Services at BruceAir.

The FAA Future Flight Services (FFS) Strategic Plan notes that pilots are rapidly adopting tablet, mobile, and web-based services for flight planning and related tasks:

Over the last decade, Flight Service users are trending towards self-assisted service delivery methods as technology improves and industry-provided services become more widely available. Voice services constitute a small percentage of transactions and a majority of the cost to the FAA, while automated services constitute the majority of transactions.

The FAA’s Future Flight Services Program (FFSP) vision is to transform and modernize the delivery of flight services over a 15-year period. The FAA believes that costs can be reduced by focusing on changing user behavior and migrating to automated, self-assisted service delivery models, while still maintaining quality of service and safety. Through FFSP, the FAA seeks to create a long-term contract vehicle and establish a relationship with the Service Provider, industry and user groups to better position the agency to take advantage of user behavior changes and improved technology.

Together, government and industry will work to realize three strategic goals:

1. Reduce the FAA cost to provide flight services, with a target reduction over 65%

2. Encourage the use of technology, industry best practices, and authoritative flight data accessed through the System-Wide Information Management (SWIM) Program to improve efficiency and quality of service delivery

3. Facilitate and gain stakeholder acceptance of changes in Flight Service delivery

The FAA is confident that a collaborative relationship among Flight Service users and stakeholders, the Flight Service Provider and the FAA will be the foundation for successful delivery of improved flight services at a price that fits within the FAA’s budget and at a level of safety and quality of service that meets or exceeds what is delivered today…

3.1 USER TRENDS TOWARDS AUTOMATION
The last decade has seen a steady increase in the use of self-service applications to the point that automated transactions outnumber human-assisted calls by 3 to 1 and 90% of flight plans are filed using automated means. The degree to which pilots rely on automation on the ground and in the cockpit runs the gamut from historic aircraft with little or no avionics to sophisticated flight planning software and electronic flight bags for high-end users.

A table in the strategic plan offers more details.

FSS-StrategicPlan-Table-1-1

The strategic plan doesn’t provide specific proposals about how FSS services will change in the near future, but you can read additional background at the FSS page at the FAA website.

ICAO Aircraft Type Designators

The FAA plans to switch all flight plans–VFR and IFR–to the ICAO format sometime in the fall of 2017 (the date keeps slipping; see this notice for the latest details)

I’ve offered help on the most vexing problem for most pilots–the myriad codes for communications, navigation, and transponder equipment–here at BruceAir.

But long-time U.S. pilots also need to understand and use the proper ICAO type designators for the aircraft they fly. Most codes use four-characters; some use only three letters.

Some of the codes are the same as those used on the FAA domestic flight plan form, but many are different–sometimes surprising so.

For example, the ICAO designator for the Cessna 172 is C172.

But the ICAO designator for a fixed-gear turbocharged Cessna 182 is C82S.

Note that the ICAO designators don’t include hypens or other special characters. For example, the Beechcraft Debonair is BE33, not BE-33.

The easiest way to check the type designators for the aircraft you fly is via the web-based tool at the ICAO website, here. The flexible search feature quickly displays the designators assigned to aircraft by manufacturer, make-model name, and so forth.

You can also find the current correct type designators in FAA order JO 7360.1.

Changes coming to Flight Service October 1, 2015

The latest FAAST Blast from FAA includes a teaser about forthcoming changes to Flight Services provided by Lockheed-Martin AFSS:

  • The 122.0 Flight Watch frequency will go away; services available from Flight Watch will then be available on current discreet FSS frequencies.
  • All flight plans, VFR and IFR, will be filed using the ICAO format.

The notice says in part:

General aviation pilots increasingly have turned to automation in recent years to file flight plans and receive pre-flight briefings. New technology such as ADS-B is providing more inflight options to pilots. Flight Service will incorporate the industry’s newest technologies and reduce or eliminate other functions to create efficiencies and value. The changes to Flight Watch and RAA are the first in what is anticipated to be a series of right-sizing initiatives surrounding flight services provided to pilots.

For details, see this link.

A New Way to Open and Close VFR Flight Plans

I recently ferried a C182 from Boulder City, NV to Boulder, CO (route at SkyVector here).

This a was VFR trip with the airplane’s new owner (who hadn’t flown in more than 30 years–talk about getting back into flying), and, based on previous experience flying the route, I knew that for much of the trip we’d be in poor radar/communications coverage at 9500 MSL. It was a good opportunity to try the new EasyActivate and EasyClose features available via Lockheed Martin Flight Services (video below).

Now, I know the arguments about the value of filing VFR flight plans, and like many pilots, I rarely file VFR flight plans. Contacting FSS to open a VFR flight plan, especially when departing busy airspace, can be cumbersome, and even with cell phones, calling FSS at the other end and navigating the prompts/menus to close a flight plan with a briefer can also be pain.

But on long trips like this one, across sparsely populated areas and in a new airplane, I like having backup for SAR. For that purpose, I filed a detailed route (see above) and stuck to it. (I did pick up flight following on the leg from KAEG–necessary to get through the ABQ Class C and to deal efficiently with the airspace around Denver.)

This new feature is handy. File your VFR flight plan directly with L-M (not DUAT or DUATS) and select the appropriate options. About 30 minutes before your ETD, you’ll get an email or text message with a link to open the flight plan. When you’re ready to go, click/tap the link. You’ll receive a confirmation.

About 30 minutes before your ETA, you’ll get another message from L-M with a link to close the flight plan. After you land, click/tap the link, and almost immediately you’ll receive a confirmation.

No menus. No waiting to talk to a briefer over a scratchy connection. And with the reminders, less risk of forgetting to close a VFR flight plan.

Given that many of my flights involve trips into the wide open spaces of the West, often in airplanes that either aren’t equipped or suitable for IFR, I’m going to take advantage of this new way to use VFR flight plans.