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More Storm Clouds for FAA-Weather Service Plan

By Ed O'Keefe

More storm clouds brewing over the FAA and National Weather Service plans to consolidate forecasting offices at air traffic control centers? (Getty)

The back-and-forth between the FAA and National Weather Service hit turbulence today, when a government expert suggested any changes in the way the two agencies work together will not fly unless they sort out several outstanding details.

You'll recall that the Weather Service submitted recommendations last month on how to change the FAA's use of government meteorologists at its 21 Air Route Traffic Control Centers. The proposed plan would consolidate Weather Service forecasters into just two locations, in College Park, Md., and Kansas City. The FAA has sought changes to their current arrangement since at least 2005, in an effort to cut costs. Unions representing air traffic controllers and forecasters blasted the idea, convinced it will compromise air safety. (For more on the plan read The Post's Capital Weather Gang)

In a report prepared for today's House Science and Technology Committee, the GAO's leading expert on the matter seemed to agree.

The FAA and the NWS "have not defined a common outcome, established joint strategies to achieve the outcome, or agreed upon agency responsibilities," according to David A. Powner, GAO's director of information technology management issues.

"Any changes to the current structure could degrade aviation operations and safety -- and the agencies may not know it," according to his prepared testimony.

Powner notes that FAA has failed to provide the Weather Service with specific needs and a sense of how much money it hopes to save. It's also still unclear if the changes will fit with the government's long-term "NextGen" plans to shift the nation's air traffic control systems from radar to satellites. Finally -- and perhaps most crucially -- both agencies have failed to prove that the changes will not impact air safety.

The plan would save FAA some money, according to GAO. It will initially cost approximately $12.8 million to make the transition, but then cut the FAA's costs for the weather services by about 21 percent.

FAA has until next month to respond to the Weather Service proposal. Their current partnership expires in September and there has been no word yet if, when or how it might be renewed.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | July 16, 2009; 11:22 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Oversight, Turf War  
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At the Thursday, July 16th hearing conducted by the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, Chairman Brad Miller summed up the senseless and relentless FAA assault on the Center Weather Service Units very well. Quoting a portion of his statement, “We struggle with the determination by the FAA to solve a problem that appears not to exist. The current system for delivering aviation weather for products for air traffic control appears to work pretty well”. Sentiment among the overwhelming majority of operational air traffic managers and controllers at all of the nation’s air traffic control centers is that the on-site meteorologists, providing immediate face-to-face consultation, increases the margin of safety for the air traffic control system. Why are the leaders of the FAA and National Weather Service ignoring this sentiment?

Posted by: JStan1 | July 17, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

This seems like a classic case of trying to find a "solution" to a problem which doesn't exist. Going through a multi-year redesign of a system which a) will not enhance safety and b) take nearly a decade to realize any cost savings does not make sense to me. This is what happens when agencies become too "top heavy" - they invent ways to reorganize just for the sake of change.

The current system only costs 12 million per year for an agency which has nearly a 16 billion dollar budget. The cost argument does not pass the smell test.

Posted by: rfk1000 | July 17, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

The NWS and FAA aviation mission should be safety. Closing 20 of the 21 CWSU's staffed by Meteorologists that provide face to face, weather guidance to air traffic controllers and air traffic management supervisors at each ARTCC jeoparizes air safety. The 21 CWSU's were established in 1978 as a result of a recommendation by the NTSB. Why would anyone want to go against the recommendation of the NTSB? Another bad idea. With the 21 CWSU's we have a system that works extremely well and I can't understand why the FAA and NWS management wants to overturn the apple cart. I fly and I hope the meteorologists remain on duty at the 21 CWSU's providing those face to face weather guidance to air traffic managers.

Posted by: laborlinda | July 17, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

During the July 16th congressional hearing, Jack Hayes, assistant administrator for the National Weather Service repeatedly stated that 21st century technologies provide a "viable option" for remote weather support. This statement plays right into the FAA's ill-conceived plan to consolidate the current 20 CONUS CWSUs down to 2 remote locations. It also raises concern with the fact that he now backs a plan which he conceded last year creates unnecessary risks. Congressman Dan Lipinski quoted from a May 9, 2008 letter to the FAA in which Jack Hayes recommended that forecasters remain at the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) because "this option sustains the capability to provide face-to-face decision support when immediate response is required to rapidly changing first-order impacts on aviation. What's changed in a little over a year to warrant his current position?

Posted by: PaulRD | July 18, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

This is being offered by left overs from the Bush Administration who can be trusted to argue that spending over $12Million will save us $2million. Only problem is that by the time the cost catches up with the savings, we (the taxpayers) will need to pay for the next generation of technology (10 years hence). POINT? (no damn savings)

But the point of this argument is not the money. It is the safety of the flying public. Some of us care, and some of them don't.

Posted by: peter49 | July 18, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Less of the gobbledy gook. Are the leaders of the weather service crazy?? Why change something that is not broke?? The air traffic controllers have enough on their hands without looking for someone half way across the country to tell them what the weather is like where they are. Some decisions need to be made in a split second.
EVERYONE knows the weather changes from second to second. "IF" the weather service could predict everything about the upcoming weather, there would Never be any tragedies on the ground , let alone in the air. Jack Hayes needs to concentrate on something else, like building more tsunami warning centers in Porto Rico.

Posted by: britpat | July 19, 2009 7:12 AM | Report abuse

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