Public Service

Public Safety Notebook: Aircraft Life Lessons

By Lee Benson | February 1, 2008


I had the chance to manage several large aircraft acquisition and modification projects for my previous employer. These gave me an education that puts my formal one to shame.

Most of the lessons were taught by specialists within the helicopter industry. I respected these people then and many remain friends. A few lessons interrupted my sleep cycle, and made my boss question my intelligence.


I’ll share these in this and my next columns. They will be somewhat biased towards government operators; that’s were I come from. But most apply to anyone contemplating an acquisition or major mod.

Private companies are driven by profit. I think many also consider their employees’ and community’s well-being. But usually if you’re working for a private company and keep sound financial decisions near the top of your list of things to do, life is good.

Government entities do not have profit as a goal or performance measurement. Government works on perception: if the public perceives government is well managed, all is well regardless of the actual quality of management exercised.

Where am I headed? Here. Political correctness has become the standard for the perception of what constitutes good government. This affects you as a manager because this correctness, as mandated by politicians seeking the support of every special-interest niche, has wormed its way into how government entities contract for services. Before we discuss the best practices for how to deal with airframe manufacturers and completion houses, we need to discuss how this will affect your projects

To start, you must contact your procurement officer and ask to see an outside-vendor contract. Ignore the part about who does what for how much. That’s easy. Go to the conditions section. There, if you work for a Los Angeles County or City of Chicago or New York, you will see things that will curl your toes.

Some examples? The bidder must stipulate that: neither it nor any of its principals have ever benefited from slavery; that it will comply with all conditions of that government’s "deadbeat dad" policy; that it will employ a certain percentage of welfare recipients on the project. The list goes on.

The problem is complying with these conditions when the bidder is from out of state or even out of the country. In many instances, the bidder must comply with rules of its home government that conflict with your contract conditions. You’ll notice I picked some very large political subdivisions as examples. The trend towards such conditions seems to start in larger states and municipalities and work down. If you work for McGrath, Alaska, you might be OK for awhile, although (politicians being the same all over) your day is coming.

When you review your contract’s liability-insurance requirements, you may see the bean counters’ handiwork. About two years ago, they all got together where ever they do that and decided that $50 million worth of liability insurance seemed like a nice round number to require. But, except for the very largest of corporations, nobody carries that much liability insurance.

So what can you do as the project manager? First of all, understand that your contract people live in a different world. The bean counters don’t get to put out a fire or save a kid and bow to an adoring public. Their best day is when all the Ts get crossed and the Is get dotted. They work under a mandate from the governing board of your agency. They know some of this stuff is ridiculous, but somehow their ultimate bosses must be kept happy. So make the effort to understand how they think. Bring them a nice framed picture of your unit’s aircraft doing something special. Take them to lunch. In short, form a partnership. Don’t create an adversary. (When on subsequent visits, you notice the picture’s gone, just quietly bring another one. The first is in the bean counter’s den. You’ve made a partner.)

The second front is your vendor contact. You’ve been proactive and networked with your contracts people. Now you can propose to your contact what kind of work-arounds might avoid potholes in the vendor’s response to the agency’s request for proposals. You probably have six vendors vying for the contract, but would like to see one of two or three win. Nobody said you had to have this talk with all of them. I can hear some asking, "Why should I go to this trouble? My agency has lawyers for this stuff." Well, you’re the guy that needs this contract. Lawyers forgot how to think outside the box the third day of law school.

In case you think this stuff isn’t important, let me cite an example. In my past life, I was involved in a contract negotiation with a major vendor on a 10-year contract worth over $1 million a year. It would replace an existing contract with another company. All of the terms concerning the monies to be paid, work, parts to be furnished, and liabilities were completed. The change would save my agency well over $1 million during the life of the contract. But it was scrapped because conditions like the ones I’ve cited could not be met. That was one of those periods when I spent a lot of time staring at my bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m.

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