Late payments frustrate pilots working for DOI
Troy Cambier is a pilot for hire. He is owner and operator of Chena River Aviation, based in Fairbanks. Cambier flies his four-seat Robinson R-44 helicopter throughout Alaska filling a transportation void wherever it’s found.
He specializes in “wildlife work,” which entails flying scientists or other technicians into the bush to conduct field research from radio tracking to herd surveys, Cambier said. He has contracted extensively with federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Parks Service. All are agencies within the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In fall 2011, Cambier said difficulties getting paid for work for Interior began arising for him and other pilots contracted to do similar work. The issue, he said, resulted from a change in how the department handles the invoices it receives from the pilots. Bills and invoices sent to DOI specifically for aviation services go through the Aviation Management System, a subset of the National Business Center, or NBC, at Interior.
“Last October (AMS) said they had to realign and change things again and it was going to be a month and nobody would get paid at all. Well, nobody got paid until February or March this spring, and it’s just gotten worse from there,” Cambier said.
All told, he is owed approximately $65,000 for his services, amounting to an average summer’s income, Cambier claimed. Missing that amount of money has made it a struggle to keep his one-man business going. Bills owed to his fellow pilots are now in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I’ve got a leased helicopter and I have to pay a monthly lease while mine’s getting overhauled,” Cambier said. “And not having gotten paid for the work I do – I’ve drained all my savings just keeping my business going. I can’t afford to fly for them anymore.”
In the past, up to half of his business came through work with different DOI agencies, Cambier said.
Sharon Swisher, who owns Quicksilver Air out of Fairbanks with her husband Rick, said the new billing system is stored on the AMS website, while charges were previously handled in paper form.
“It used to be that we would just fill out their form and send it in and they would process it and people would get paid. Now we have to do the processing ourselves,” Swisher said. “Billing something on one of my forms takes about five minutes. Billing something for the U.S. government takes about three or four hours.”
Both Cambier and Swisher said attempts to contact someone in AMS for help resolving the payment problems have been unsuccessful.
“You can’t get anyone to return a phone call or answer an email. It’s sort of layers and layers of a bureaucratic nightmare,” Cambier said.
Blake Androff, press secretary and deputy director of communications for the Department of the Interior, issued the following statement for the Journal:
“As soon as the department became aware of this situation, we took immediate action to address the concerns of our aviation vendors. Last fall, when Interior’s business center finished deploying several bureaus to a new department-wide financial management system, the change resulted in an unintended delay in processing some invoices.
“Before the close of the fiscal year this September 30, we had most of the invoices processed and payments made to vendors. Nonetheless, with the system going off line for the end-of-the year processes and deployment of our new system to two more large bureaus, some invoices are still awaiting payment. We are expediting payments to vendors where possible and we hope to have the issue resolved in a timely fashion. We apologize for any undue hardship this has caused as we seek to improve the process to help prevent future delays in processing payments.”
A source familiar with the situation said the billing problems tie into an effort to standardize contract payments through the entire executive branch. Where a paper system was used for decades, contractors now enter everything on an Internet-based billing platform.
Byzantine billing system
Under the current system, a DOI employee in need of a pilot must file a request with AMS and get the expenditure authorized. This is a departure from how business had been conducted for many years. In the past, an employee would choose any contractor from a list of operators preapproved to conduct work up to $25,000 per job, the source said.
Now, after the expense is approved by AMS, a task order number — essentially a purchase order — is given to each flight at least five days before take-off. This number is then sent through the AMS billing network and returned to the pilot.
Then the work is done. After everyone returns from the job, the pilot then enters the task number into the billing platform and can expect to be paid within one month.
At least that’s how the system is designed to work.
According to the source, task numbers have been disappearing in the AMS system and never getting to the pilots, preventing them from being able to enter their work into the billing platform.
If the task number is ever recovered, it is not uncommon for pilots to wait more than three months to receive payment. This is apparently what happened when the system was initially implemented in 2011.
Alaska’s unpredictable weather has added to the problem, the source said. Because the cost of the job must be preapproved and each job is assigned a task order number, if a job is delayed for any reason, the most common being unsafe flying conditions, a new task order must be generated in order for the computerized billing platform to properly recognize the change in working dates.
“It’s been a pretty chaotic year and the vendors are really taking the brunt of the chaos of the billing system,” the source said.
The Interior Department’s NBC has apologized for the delays in payments to its contractors in several emails it has sent out to those affected, Cambier said. An email sent in early October from the NBC obtained by the Journal states, “We regret the delays in payments and billings as we moved throughout the year. We also share your concerns and are working with the Department policy offices and the system developers on a long-term solution that will improve efficiencies.”
The email goes on to detail a further change in the center’s billing system for fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1.
The switch from the current Aviation Management System to Aircraft Use Reports will take place Oct. 22. Further, it acknowledges yet another delay will be experienced, “in invoice payment due to this transition and general year-end processing.”
Training will be offered to assist flight operators in the transition to the AUR system, the email states.
Sandy Hamilton operates Arctic Air Alaska, a fixed-wing flight service out of Fairbanks, and said training had been offered for changes in the payment system last year. Hamilton said his office manager attended the training sessions but they were of little help when the system didn’t operate smoothly.
Arctic Air Alaska, a five-person operation, is owed $78,000 by DOI, according to Hamilton.
“We’re having the same problem (Cambier) is having and everybody else is,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton recently added to his staff to accommodate the online bill processing procedures.
“I have a full-time office manager even though I’m small, because I just figured I have to pay someone to do this stuff,” he said. “I used to do it all myself, but it just got – there’s no way I could fly and do it all myself.”
Earlier this month, Cambier sent an email to Rep. Don Young’s office alerting them of the payment fiasco, he said.
Officials in Young’s office stated they are aware of the situation and “are doing everything we can to ensure Mr. Cambier receives proper payment for his services.”
When asked about her knowledge of the circumstances, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office released this statement, “Senator Murkowski is aware of the situation, and over time has expressed her deep dissatisfaction with DOI’s inability to remain current on their debts and obligations to Alaska air carriers. She has been in consistent contact with all levels of DOI personnel to pressure the department to resolve the technical problems that have led to this backlog.
“In our most recent interactions with DOI, we have learned they are placing a priority on addressing this situation, and also that a computer accounting requirement that was delaying payments to Alaskans has been suspended for the remainder of the year.”
Cambier said he hopes the situation can be rectified because federal contracts are a large part of his business, Hamilton insists the old paper method of payment worked very well.
“Before they went to this new system, they had got it where it was pretty functional,” Hamilton said. “We would do a paper (invoice), we would submit it to the biologist and then they would sign it and send it on and we were getting paid in a week, sometimes two.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].