FAA plan to terminate airport weather observers raises travel safety concerns

Heat waves distort a picture of airplanes waiting to take off from National Airport  on April 26 (JIM LO SCALZO, EPA)

Heat waves distort a picture of airplanes waiting to take off from National Airport on April 26 (JIM LO SCALZO, EPA)

The responsibility for monitoring the skies at airports across the country may shift from meteorological professionals to air traffic controllers, with little weather experience, if a proposal from the Federal Aviation Administration moves forward.

Both the professionals weather observers, whose jobs are at risk, and aviation groups have expressed concern that air traffic controllers may not be up to the task of keeping pilots apprised of rapidly changing weather conditions.

“Shifting responsibility to air traffic controllers, who have several other duties, there will be some information lost,” said Melissa McCaffrey, a senior analyst at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOCP), which represents 400,000 aviation pilots. “That’s concerning, because the number one cause of general aviation fatalities is weather-related issues.”

A senior FAA official, not authorized to speak for the agency, said the transition would be “no big deal.”

“The controllers are already in the tower so they just need to be trained to take tower weather observations,” the official said. “Not hard, in the old days we used to do it all the time.”

Currently, professional weather observers are contracted by the FAA to augment the weather observations recorded by an automated system at 142 airports around the country. These include major hubs, including all three major airports in the D.C.-Baltimore area (Reagan National, BWI, and Dulles), as well as smaller airports that frequently experience bad weather.

The FAA plan, dated March 15, is to transition weather observation functions to air traffic controllers at 121 airports by September 30, and the remaining 21 “in the future”.  The weather observers cost the FAA about $57 million annually.

The active weather observers at the 142 airports  are either meteorologists or have specialized military weather training, according to Mark Richards, the site supervisor of the FAA Contract Weather Office at Reagan National Airport.

To take on the responsibility of weather observation, air traffic controllers would be required to take two training courses, complete 5 hours of on-the-job training and pass a weather observing certification exam according to the FAA plan.

“They’re [the FAA] dumbing down the training requirements, replacing people who’ve been doing this for years and saying no loss in service,” Richards said.

Richards said that weather observation on quiet weather days is typically routine but becomes fast-paced and demanding during inclement weather.

“During critical times, when air traffic controllers are most busy, and [weather reports] need most care and attention, they’d need to do the most,” Richards said.

Bob Hepler, site supervisor of the FAA Contract Weather Office at JFK International Airport, questioned the feasibility of performing both  weather monitoring and air traffic control functions simultaneously.

“To require Air Traffic Controllers at the busiest airports in the nation to interrupt their job of controlling air traffic in order to perform all the same functions of a Certified Contract Weather Observer, especially in times of poor weather conditions, is not only dangerously impractical but impossible,” Hepler said.

Richards explained that when weather is changing quickly, sometimes the automated equipment can’t keep up so it’s up to the weather observer to relay information.  For example, visibility and cloud height can change in seconds Richards said.

“I wouldn’t want to land with a non-weather guy giving reports during severe weather,” Richards said.

The FAA plan states  air traffic controllers will not be able to leave the control tower and sample the weather outside. How this function will be handled is left somewhat open-ended.

“The team recommends supporting the controller’s observations using the Airport Authority at each facility,” the plan reads. “The airport will determine the level of supplemental service provided…”

According to a fact sheet by JFK’s Hepler, if there’s no dedicated outside observer, detailed information about certain types of frozen precipitation – which are of concern to aircraft safety – including sleet, freezing rain and snow, may not be obtained and passed along to pilots.

Snowfall measurements, currently taken at hourly and six hourly intervals by the contract weather observers, could fall through the cracks.

“Climate records very well could be disrupted,” Hepler said, adding that the observers not only measure snow but provide back-up if automated sensors go down, a task air traffic controllers could not perform from the towers.

The Airports Council International, a group that represents governing bodies that own and operate commercial airports, released a statement saying it was “very concerned” the FAA has not coordinated its plan with airport operators and is requesting more information.

“We are also seeking delayed implementation of the plan until we can be assured that policies and procedures are in place to ensure that current weather observation capabilities are not compromised during the transition,” its statement said.

The FAA said no decision has been made on the plan.

In recent years, FAA has ended contract weather services at 14 airports

“The FAA is committed to ensuring that pilots and operators at those locations continue to have current and accurate weather information in order to ensure safety,” it said in a statement. “FAA has trained air traffic controllers to read and interpret automated weather data and has trained airport personnel to make additional outdoor weather determinations about icing conditions.”

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April 2013: Slightly warm and dry in Washington, D.C.