Storm Brewing Between FAA and Weather Service
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.
| December 19, 2008; 7:01 AM ET
Categories: Administration, Agencies and Departments
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