Interior Department pilot payment system a success so far


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A revised payment system implemented in May for Department of the Interior vendor pilots in Alaska seems to have done its job — it’s kept the pilots paid and flying.

“Most of the vendors were paid within 72 to 96 hours from the time we got the invoice,” during this flying season, said Mark Vaughn, a National Park Service contract administrator in Anchorage.

Vaughn said it was a rare exception for a vendor pilot to wait up to 15 days to be paid after the Park Service received an invoice for work.

Last year, a complex electronic payment system within the department largely failed and left some small Alaska flight services being owed upwards of $250,000 by Interior Department agencies. Alaska Air Carriers Association Executive Director Joy Journeay said at the peak of the problem the number of vendors owed thousands of dollars was in the “dozens.”

Changes in the payment system cut out procedures that sent paperwork and money to the Interior Department offices in Denver and Boise, Idaho. With money for Alaska operations being kept in state, Vaughn said Interior agency staff that handle the transactions, such as himself, were able to be more responsive to their vendors’ needs.

Additionally, Vaughn said a big improvement in the system was allowing work invoices to be flexible, rather than for specific flight times, as had been done in the past.

“We stopped going day-of-flight and started doing timeframes, which was better for the vendors and much better for us,” Vaughn said. “That way we could say we need to fly sometime ‘in here’ and when we had a weather break we could fly rather than saying we need to fly on the 25th, for instance.”

Some flight services changed their business practices and stopped flying for the department prior to having office work completed after what happened last year, a move that also helped remove confusion from the system, Vaughn said.

Journeay said she spoke recently with the officials in the Alaska Region office of Interior’s Office of Aviation Services and was told that the department had no long-term outstanding payments.

After performing an informal survey of Association members, Journey wrote in an email that there are lingering issues with entering data into the electronic payment system, but vendors are getting paid in a timely fashion.

The changes to the payment system were made specifically in Alaska after Interior agency directors in the state sent a letter in September 2012 to Interior Business Center officials in Denver requesting a procedural changes similar to the ones made. The letter stated that the “Alaska DOI bureaus spend $29 million annually, or approximately 47 percent of all DOI aviation expenditures nationwide.”

At the time it noted that some vendor payments were as much as two years behind. Further, the letter noted that some pilots had flown in “good faith on verbal approval” that they would get paid when the payment system went awry and that the blanket system had damaged Interior’s credibility in Alaska.

The high demand for aircraft services, combined with unpredictable Alaska weather prompted the Alaska-specific trial program.

By “Alaskanizing” the system, Vaughn said everyone involved is now on the same page.

After learning of the payment delays last fall, Sen. Mark Begich wrote a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting prompt action to get Alaska pilots paid. After involvement from the state’s whole congressional delegation on the issue, the department reported it was caught up on payments in April.

 Vaughn said money had been appropriated to pay vendors for late summer work in preparation for the federal government shutdown that began Oct. 1. The next step is to determine whether the program becomes moves from trial status to standard procedure in Alaska.

When the government restarts and Interior officials get back to work he said they would meet and discuss the 2013 flying season and how the system can be further improved.

He hopes it stays in place, Vaughn said, and he’s encouraged by the positive responses his agency has received from vendors this year.

“One of the measures is kind of how much do you get yelled at and this year I didn’t get yelled at at all so that’s good,” he said. “Last year I couldn’t say the same thing.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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