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Storm Brewing Between FAA and Weather Service

By Ed O'Keefe

The National Weather Service is set to deliver recommendations next week on the future of the Federal Aviation Administration's use of government meteorologists at its air route traffic control centers. The Bush administration seems eager to make a final decision before Inauguration Day, after trying for years to change the FAA's use of government forecasters in an effort to reduce costs and improve efficiency. The move is opposed by Weather Service employees who say the move would risk the safety of air passengers.

The FAA has 21 regional air route traffic control centers nationwide responsible for safely moving air traffic across the country. Each control center has at least four NWS meteorologists working side-by-side with air traffic controllers and managers to provide aviation-based forecasting as part of an interagency relationship that started in the late 1970s.

One cost-cutting proposal discussed would move NWS meteorologists from the 21 control centers to two forecast centers at College Park, Md. and Kansas City.

“These are simply ways of sharing information much more inexpensively. Doing it by teleconference. Taking advantage of the technology we have out there to do that,” said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto.

Others disagree however, concerned that communicating with air traffic controllers via teleconferences and e-mail could sacrifice quality forecasting and safety.

“Honest to God, the FAA’s going to kill people” with this idea, said Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Union. “Not only are they going to kill people, but on a day-to-day basis they’re going to cost us all so much money.” The consolidation would mean big costs to relocate meteorologists or reassign them to other departments, Sobien said, and the quality of forecasts provided to controllers could also suffer.

“[Meteorologists] could be dealing with a blizzard, a hurricane, a fire in Southern California and maybe volcanic ash.”

“We’re kinda puzzled,” said Bill Proenza, director of the Weather Service’s southern region, which stretches from the Virgin Islands to New Mexico. “We want to take a very close look at this, but the FAA is really pressing to end this program as soon as possible.... I think it’s important that the new administration have an opportunity to review this proposal and then we have a chance to review it.”

“I think for this administration to attempt to implement this kind of policy this close to the end of the administration is not fair to the American people,” said Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), the outgoing chairman of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment. “If you want to do something right for the country, then make the recommendation, but then pass it on to President-elect Barack Obama. Let that administration make the decision.”

Takemoto disputes all of these concerns, noting that the proposed changes have “zero impact on safety. These are simply ways of sharing information much more inexpensively.” Air traffic controllers already have access to weather information on screens in each control tower and all controllers must “intensely” understand weather systems in order to carry out their duties, Takemoto said, since most air traffic delays are caused by weather events. (The NWS meteorologists conduct weather refresher courses for the air traffic controllers however.)

“If you went into a working air traffic facility, you would see immediately that safety would not be compromised. They’re looking at live screens looking at up-to-date weather patterns.”

The Weather Service’s proposed solution is still being developed, according to Christopher J. Vaccaro. It is due by Dec. 23 and then will be submitted to the FAA, which will have to accept or decline the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, it’s expected to face a nine month testing and evaluation period. The final proposal also requires the approval of the National Transportation Safety Board, the same agency that recommended the NWS-FAA interagency relationship 30 years ago. Will the Bush administration make a final decision before Jan. 20? Stay tuned.

What do you think? Is this about saving costs and improving efficiency or will it jeopardize air safety? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 19, 2008; 7:01 AM ET
Categories:  Administration, Agencies and Departments  
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"If the proposal is accepted, it’s expected to face a nine month testing and evaluation period."

And if it doesn't work after nine months, the affected meteorologists will be moved BACK and re-reassigned??? If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Posted by: edallan | December 19, 2008 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Nothing will be harmed by waiting an extra month; and, letting the new administration sign off, or not.

It is only Bush wanting to mark his territory again. He is a male dog.

Posted by: linda_521 | December 19, 2008 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Reduce costs, only. Safety is of no concern to spreadsheet jockeys, and the value of face-to-face contact doesn't show up in cost analyses.

Posted by: cayervii36 | December 19, 2008 8:25 AM | Report abuse

What if all or some of the technology goes down? Then it might be very useful to have real live meteorologists on location. And isn't this the same administration that's always yakking about the imminent threat of terrorist attack? I agree with what others here have said: to change an important safety system that is functioning satisfactorily only for the purpose of cutting costs is insane. Especially with respect to aviation.

Posted by: CynicalC | December 19, 2008 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Based on the simple principle that the Bush Administration has been wrong about everything for nearly eight years, it follows that this decision should wait another month.

Posted by: eed017 | December 19, 2008 9:21 AM | Report abuse

"Takemoto disputes all of these concerns, noting that the proposed changes have “zero impact on safety."

I hope that you and your family will be on the first flight affected by this stupid rule change.

Posted by: edeckel | December 19, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I have worked as a Fire Behavior Analyst on an Incident Management Team for the past five years. We primarily manage large wildfires. I work side by side with NWS meteorologists on these incidents and could not provide for the safety of firefighters or the communities at risk without continuous interaction with these highly qualified professionals. There may be similarities between forecasting fire behavior and managing air traffic in the dynamic nature of wildfire and frenetic pace of air traffic. While it is critical that I have an understanding of meteorology, I just do not have time to evaluate all the elements that contribute to fire behavior on an incident that's burning tens or hundreds of thousands of acres. Having a meteorologist on site to interact with on a moments notice can in fact save lives.

I can only imagine the demands on an air traffic controller, but I suspect we may have something in common. While they may be familiar or even proficient in interpreting all the models available for forecasting weather, there are to many other aspects to the job to spend the time evaluating models. I have used teleconferencing technology and I just cannot envision it being nearly as effective as a meteorologist at hand.

I sincerely hope this proposal is not implemented without further analysis and consideration of risks versus the cost savings.

Posted by: liesered | December 19, 2008 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I spent a week in a FAA control center where concept testing was implemented. As a trained weather forecaster and watching the forecasters at work, I will say this is a dangerous plan that will cost lives. While remote weather monitoring is fine for a few aircraft, the quality of service crumbles as the amount aircraft being watched increases.

Posted by: Phxlair | December 19, 2008 11:00 AM | Report abuse

I was a weather forecaster in the USAF and I am very surprised that the FAA wants to eliminate meteorologists. Are air traffic controllers suppose to forecast while handling air craft? Do air traffic controllers have degrees in atmospheric sciences? Maybe scaling down the numbers would be appropriate. But as a former forecaster, I wouldn't want to land or take off when there is active weather in the area such as thunderstorms, icing, wind shear and other events that can be and are forecasted by non-air traffic control personnel.

Posted by: sander | December 19, 2008 11:30 AM | Report abuse

The FAA consolidated general aviation Flight Service Stations, formerly all over the nation every hundred miles or so, to three such stations. They now have less information in front of them than you can get from the Weather Channel in your motel room. The FAA did this very thing, consolidating, and they are now worse than useless. Their briefer recently advised me right into a snowstorm over the high Sierras that they did not see coming, even though I saw it in the 2 seconds right before the commercial break on the motel TV, as they show sections of the country on time lapse Doppler radar, and always end with the west interrupted by a commercial, so you have to look fast. It's a lot better that what the new and now useless Flight Service briefers will tell you. They missed a whole huge snowstorm. I diverted, and so survived to tell you all.
If they do this, all we can hope is that new technology will replace the formerly useful government meteorologists, which in this case, it has. Modern aircraft can get detailed weather imagery from satellites. We all can get that on our PDAs for a small monthly fee. As for educated projections like experienced meteorologists might be expected to offer, perhaps the next generation of computer software will display future Doppler imagery.
I'm old fashioned enough to think it was better back then, even though I like how easy things like navigation became. I flew air tankers to forest fires for a while. These days I'm a geezer, as are all of us who liked it better a while back.

Posted by: jackromanski | December 19, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Having been intimately involved in pilot training and oversight, air traffic and weather issues, while flying for a major airline for 36 years, I can honestly state this is a very bad idea. FAA Air Traffic (AT) is just beginning to delve into assimilating weather information into their area of responsibility and timely communicating it to flight crews. Current AT technology does not allow a controller to see hazardous weather on their antiquated radar scopes. In laymen’s terms there is a planned progression into modernizing the aging AT system with the FAA's NextGen system utilizing GPS (satellite) and modern computer based technology. An initiative that will take over 20 years and $Billions to accomplish. The FAA has an antequated AT infastructure and understaffed and aging AT controller group and has not been able to keep up with retirements and attrition let alone growth in the aviation industry. Any changes in the current system should come through the NextGen process, not in a last minuet cost cutting union bashing, safety reducing, flawed cost cutting initiative by a Lame Duck Bush bureaucratic hack.Why risk a smoking hole in proving or disproving this theory?

Posted by: skiracers | December 19, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

if weather is the reason for most air traffic delays it would seem to me that more information and a more proactive interactive weather centric air traffic would be a more functional system. there-for more weather people and new processes should be adopted in the FAA. The problem is that the value that information adds is qualitative and difficult to quantify for the bean counting crew.

Posted by: imweather | December 19, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

The FAA (through Mr.Takemoto) is lying and they know it.

I was an air traffic controller in Atlanta Center (where we have our own National Weather Service people) for 25 years and I've seen the NWS meteorologists save lives. This isn't second-hand or some war story -- this is me sitting in front of a radar scope and the meteorologists coming over to point to the weather on my scope with the vital expertise that was needed.

Another time, I and 3 other controllers made the decision to send an aircraft in trouble to the east, towards lower terrain. After consulting with the meteorologists on duty, face-to-face, we turned the aircraft around -- into the mountains -- because the meteorologists assured us that the weather would improve up there first. He was right, we controllers were wrong and it saved the guy's life.

You don't get that kind of local knowledge from some remote location clear across the country and you certainly don't build that kind of trust with a stranger. Moving the meteorologists out of the Centers is a BAD idea.

Don Brown

Posted by: GettheFlick | December 19, 2008 2:40 PM | Report abuse

As a frequent flier I think that the head of the weather service and the head of the FAA should be replaced by the new administration. Putting peoples lives at risk is criminal. Mr Proenza, Mr Lampson, and Mr Sobien are the only sane people. Listen to what they say. the safety should come before cutting costs, and Obama knows that this is what it is about!!

Posted by: britpat | December 19, 2008 7:47 PM | Report abuse

One thing to know about FAA spokespersons: they always lie. When Takemoto says there will be zero impact on safety, he's lying.

Posted by: georgejones5 | December 20, 2008 12:12 AM | Report abuse

1n 1976 - 1977, the Air Force Weather Service "forced" a concept test on the FAA in the Olathe, KS ARTCC by placing "real weather personal" into the building ...prior to this time there was no weather intelligence in the air traffic control system...this concept eventually evolved from "blue suit" AF types to NWS Forecasters providing "tailored weather support" to the air traffic system...the support concept saved lives and "fuel" back then and ever since...The FAA was reluctant then as they appear to be today!

In the big picture, on-site support seems still beneficial, justified and obviously is a very, very small part of the over-all cost of the air traffic system. 32 years ago, I was part of the group that made this idea "work" so well in saving lives, fuel, money, etc. and it appears "we" are re-inventing the wheel!

Posted by: mortdavis | December 20, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

What else is new! The current Bushies and their Free Trade Internationalistas haven't cared about the American citizens, except as cannon fodder, since their hero Ronnie R's adminisration. [Joe Stalin would be so proud.] They've just ramped it up the past 8 years. What's a safe flight among friends? If the peons die, they figure so much more air for them to breathe.

Posted by: JohninConnecticut | December 21, 2008 6:13 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for saying what NATCA would love to blurt out, but wont in fear of a job action lawsuit.

“Honest to God, the FAA’s going to kill people” with this idea, said Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Union. “Not only are they going to kill people, but on a day-to-day basis they’re going to cost us all so much money.”

While our job titles may be different, we share the same awesome responsibility. First and foremost S A F E T Y of the flying public. Not counting beans, breaking unions, providing a lucrative contract to some government favored company(lockeed, boeing etc.)They are sold on the idea that contracting is the answer to everything. Performance records prove the opposite here in USA and overseas as well.

The geniuses that create these plans always forget to consider the human factors involved.

In 2005, we were briefed by our manager that the faa supports " a reasonable cost". Whatever happened to "safety...period?"

Man I feel these meteorologists pain. Hang in there and try to drag this out as long as possible. Change is coming!

Posted by: Vectormonkey1 | December 24, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

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