St. Petersburg flight service center for private pilots to close

Lockheed Martin will close a facility at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport that provides preflight safety briefings to private pilots.

The move is part of wider cuts that will shutter seven flight service stations in the United States and leave 160 employees, including 33 in St. Petersburg, out of work. Lockheed Martin, which operates the facilities under a federal contract, wrote employees last month that it was overstaffed.

The aerospace and defense contracting giant took over flight services in 2005 from the Federal Aviation Administration with a plan to consolidate functions of 54 stations and 2,500 employees in the United States at a handful of hubs. After the latest reductions, Lockheed Martin will operate three stations and three hubs with about 840 workers, said Jan Gottfredsen, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin.

Before flying, private pilots call flight services for information about weather, air space restrictions and other potential hazards along their routes. Calls to the stations being closed will be routed to employees at the hubs with knowledge of the region where a pilot is flying, Gottfredsen said.

That's not the someone who watches the airspace from South Carolina to Central Florida every day, said Marc Lowther, a union shop steward at the St. Petersburg station. Local workers have developed years of expertise about Florida's unpredictable weather, he said.

"Pilots want to hear an experienced and knowledgeable person," Lowther said. "I'm familiar with how these storms develop and move. There's still a need for geographically specific weather experts."

The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, the largest group representing general aviation pilots, has followed the transformation of flight services since 2005. There were some rough spots when Lockheed Martin took over, said AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy.

But employees at the hubs seem well-versed in briefing pilots on various regions, Dancy said.

"They understand what the pilot needs," Dancy said. "Thus far, they've done a good job.''

The union representing flight services employees last month asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Randy Babbitt, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, to stop the closures.

"We are distressed about the continued downsizing of high-wage, high-skill jobs … especially when the cuts will endanger public safety," wrote R. Thomas Buffenbarger, international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

St. Petersburg flight service center for private pilots to close 12/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 9:49pm]

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