FAA Gives Weather Service 2 More Months to Plan Reduction of Forecaster Staff

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday gave the National Weather Service two more months to recommend how to reduce the number of meteorologists at regional air traffic control centers, effectively delaying a decision on the controversial proposal until after the Obama administration takes office.

The Weather Service had faced a Dec. 23 deadline to submit ideas to replace the present system, which bases at least four meteorologists at each of the 21 "air route traffic control centers" around the country.

The FAA has suggested that technology and communication improvements eliminate the need for meteorologists at each center. Weather Service employees contend that consolidation would compromise aviation safety and result in minimal cost savings.

John L. "Jack" Hayes, director of the National Weather Service, announced the delay in an "all hands" e-mail sent to employees.

"This will allow the FAA and the NWS additional time to address any public misperceptions regarding the FAA's requirements and the NWS response," Hayes wrote. The Weather Service now has until Feb. 23 to submit its recommendations, he said.

"More time is needed to refine the proposal," said Christopher J. Vaccaro, a Weather Service spokesman. "It was requested and the FAA granted it."

Why did the FAA agree? "Holiday spirit? I don't know," said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency. "They asked for additional time, and if they need it, we're willing to give it to them."

"It's a smart decision," said Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.), the outgoing chairman of the House science committee's subcommittee on energy and the environment, who had expressed concern that the Bush administration was trying to rush a decision before it left office. "It's not something that should be done at the end of an administration. We know that the professionals in the Weather Service are opposed to it."

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said that despite the reprieve, the FAA remains determined to consolidate the system.

"My guess is this isn't going to stop anything," Sobien said. "It's my hope that when the Obama team comes in, they'll have time to fix the problem."

Sobien also questioned the cost savings. "If you factor in risk, it'll never pay for itself," he said. "One plane crash because of weather is an extremely expensive proposition."

Brown said cost savings are not the top priority for the FAA. "Our biggest focus is being able to use the best technology out there," she said.

"The FAA does not require direct, face-to-face contact at each of our Air Route Traffic Control Centers," Nancy B. Kalinowski, vice president of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization, wrote in a Sept. 24 letter to Hayes. "Technology has advanced over the past decade to allow us to move away from that most costly option."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company