Proposal Suggests Closing Weather Offices at 20 Air Control Centers

By Steve Vogel and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 5, 2009

The federal government yesterday moved forward with a controversial proposal that would close weather offices at 20 regional air traffic control centers around the country and instead provide controllers with forecasts from two central units in Maryland and Missouri.

The consolidation plan came under immediate fire from unions representing National Weather Service employees and air traffic controllers, which charged that the change will endanger aviation safety.

"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," said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

"This is a foolish plan that puts cost savings ahead of safety," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Quite frankly, we cannot believe such a reckless idea has gotten this far." But the Federal Aviation Administration, which sought the changes, says advances in technology make face-to-face contact between controllers and forecasters unnecessarily expensive. No weather service employees will lose jobs under the proposed consolidation, according to federal officials, though job locations would change.

The proposal was sent to the FAA by John L. "Jack" Hayes, director of the National Weather Service.

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

If the proposal is accepted, the next step would be to outline a nine-month demonstration and evaluation of the two-center approach to ensure there is no degradation in service or safety, according to Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service and is part of the Commerce Department. The two centers will be in College Park, Md., and Kansas City, Mo.

The evaluation would be subject to third-party review, Vaccaro added. "No final decisions or commitments" on consolidation have been made, he said.

The consolidation will be contingent on a successful demonstration and validation trial of the two-center model, according to the letter sent from Hayes to the FAA.

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

In September, the FAA rejected a previous proposal from the weather service that would have kept forecasters at each regional center.

Sobien, the union president, said that forecasters at each regional traffic center routinely provide emergency assistance to aircraft that have lost instrumentation during bad weather.

Under the new proposal, one "lead forecaster on duty" will be available at each of the two consolidated weather stations nationwide as a point-of-contact to support 10 regional air traffic control centers by instant messaging or telephone rather than face to face.

Sobien expressed concern that the forecaster may not always be available because of competing demands from the various regional control centers.

The FAA's Takemoto said the current arrangement is based on the technology that was available in the 1970s and needs to be updated. Every regional air traffic control center now "has up-to-the-minute weather from a variety of sources," he said, including Doppler radar and surveillance radar.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company