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More Storm Clouds for FAA and Weather Service?

By Ed O'Keefe



FAA air traffic controllers may soon lose face-to-face contact with National Weather Service forecasters in an effort to update an arrangement that officials believe needs to be updated.

Updated 8:51 p.m. ET

By Ed O'Keefe and Steve Vogel

The National Weather Service today finally got around to delivering those long-anticipated recommendations on changing the FAA's use of government meteorologists at its Air Route Traffic Control Centers, a decision blasted by unions representing government forecasters and air traffic controllers.

The basic plan (pdf) calls for downsizing the 20 National Weather Service Center Weather Service Units (or CWSUs for short), to just two: one in College Park, Md. and another in Kansas City.

If the FAA approves the propsal, NWS will perform a nine-month demonstration, most likely in Kansas City, focused especially on how the new setup would impact service quality and aircraft safety. The demonstration would be overseen by an independent body of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences, according to NOAA spokesman Christopher Vaccaro. The consolidation would move forward only if the panel concludes it does not impact air safety, according to Commerce spokeswoman Parita Shah. (The National Weather Service is operated by NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department.)

No weather service employees will lose jobs under the proposed consolidation, according to federal officials, though job locations would change.

Unions representing the impacted forecasters and air traffic controllers are -- to put it mildly -- unhappy.

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said that if the plan is implemented, "air traffic controllers will no longer have the immediate expertise of an on-site meteorologist to advise them where to route aircraft experiencing difficulty when weather conditions play a critical role in that decision." He cited a January 2006 Booz-Allen study conducted for the FAA that concluded that all seven air traffic control centers that participated in the study preferred face-to-face interaction with meteorologists rather than contact by e-mail, instant messaging or phone, as called for in the proposal.

“This is a foolish plan that puts cost savings ahead of safety," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey said in a statement. "Quite frankly, we cannot believe such a reckless idea has gotten this far. The public needs to know that if put into place, this plan would directly and negatively affect the margin of safety for the air traffic control system.”

The FAA says advances in technology make face-to-face contact between controllers and forecasters unnecessarily expensive.

The proposal was sent today to the FAA by John L. “Jack” Hayes, director of the National Weather Service, which is part of the Commerce Department. Officials there have stressed throughout this process that the new plan will not cause job losses for the affected forecasters nor jeopardize air safety.

The FAA has received the report but has not yet reviewed it, according to Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the agency.

The proposal comes in response to pressure from the FAA, which funds the cost of the weather stations and has pressed NWS to come up with less costly ways of providing forecasts to the regional air traffic control centers.

Related: Eye on the National Weather Service (Feb. 23, 2008)

By Ed O'Keefe  | June 4, 2009; 5:14 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Turf War  
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Comments

This is terrible. The watchful eye's on the sky will be spread very thin thus increasing the chance of an accident. The West coast citizens are getting screwed with no centers in the plan. Hey while the people are in a tornado shelter in Kansas who will be assiting the flights out west?

Posted by: bbarry3 | June 5, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The FAAs claim that face to face immediate consultations with meteorologists at the nation’s Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCC) are no longer needed due to current technology could not be further from the truth. High level FAA officials behind this effort to consolidate are so far removed from the air traffic operational environment that they are unaware of what their subordinate operational managers need to keep efficient air traffic nationwide. Any operational FAA air traffic manager at the ARTCCs will tell you that due to the complexity of air traffic decisions meteorologists are absolutely needed to provide split second advice. When air traffic is heavy along with significant ongoing weather controllers do not have time to try to interpret complex new weather displays. I know this very well as I’m a meteorologist who has worked at an ARTCC for nearly 3 decades.

Posted by: JStan1 | June 5, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

There is a presumption in this plan that the TMO's -as aviation weather users- have been adequately trained to fully utilize the sophisticated products that are slated to replace the face to face interaction that currently exists between them and the CWSU forecasters.

Problem is they haven't...

This bad assumption, coupled with a mix of hubris on the user side that has always held "weather guessers" in disdain from the earliest days of aviation, will set the stage for a spate of weather related accidents.

And, of course, there will be the obligatory surprise and consternation when the spike seems to suddenly sprout out of the ether.

Posted by: sidishus | June 5, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

FAA and National Weather Service high level management have wasted taxpayer money for more than 6 years negotiating this ill-conceived plan. After numerous team analysis proposals, consulting group studies, agencey evaluations, and tests, all conclusions drawn so far indicate this is a "bad" idea. In fact, 2 separate $500,000 consulting group studies uncovered operational decrepancies/ deficiencies with the consolidation plan which would lead to a serious degradation in service and safely provided by the current level of support. Despite grave concerns with this plan from Senate Committee Chairmen, air traffic managers and supervisors, pilots, aircraft owners as well as the professional meteorologists who work in the National Airspace System, the FAA/NWS continue to pursue this risky, deeply disturbing plan.

Posted by: PaulRD | June 6, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

One need only go to wikipedia and type in Southern Airways Flight 242, to see how stupid this decision to consolidate is. The NWS employees were integrated into the air route centers, specfically because and I quote from the NTSB: "limitations in the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system which precluded the timely dissemination of realtime hazardous weather information to the flightcrew."

After most air carrier crashes involving fatalties, changes TOWARDS safety are made. Air traffic control as we know it today, was the result of a mid-air collison over the Grand Canyon by two commercial airliners back in the 1950's.

Specific approach instructions given to aircraft, are the result of a TWA flight
that crashed into the top of the Blue Ridge mountains near Berryville back in 1974.

This consolidation is not a wise move.

Posted by: clickityclack | June 7, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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