Weather Forecasters Buck FAA Consolidation Plan

 - January 30, 2009, 5:56 AM

An FAA plan to consolidate all of the 84 National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters working in the nation’s 21 ATC en route centers into two central forecasting stations has drawn spirited opposition from two unions, the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca).

Although the Bush Administration proposal to meld all of the forecasters into two centralized stations in Kansas City and College Park, Md., has drawn fire from NWSEO and Natca, the FAA contends that the move could save the agency approximately $4 million annually and would make the U.S. system more like Nav Canada’s successful model.

In late December the FAA gave the NWS until February 23 to submit ideas on how to replace the current system, which has been in place since 1978 as a result of a recommendation by the NTSB. The Safety Board determined that one of the major contributing factors in the Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga., in 1977 was the ATC system’s inability to disseminate hazardous weather information to flight crews in real time.

The FAA has suggested that technology and communications improve- ments eliminate the need for meteorologists at each center. But controllers at the Memphis center argue that the cost-cutting move could threaten the safety of air travel in the skies above the Mid-South.

“During the summer months, as the temperatures rise and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico creates ‘pop-up’ thunderstorms, the threat to the flying public increases by the hour,” said Memphis center facility representative Ron Carpenter. “At Memphis center, we have a great group of NWS employees who gather pertinent weather information and continuously update the controller workforce on the ever-changing threat.”

Natca claimed that severe weather on February 5 last year–the worst outbreak of tornadoes since the beginning of the FAA’s Next Generation Weather Radar Program–demonstrates the importance of on-site weather forecasters.

As the storms moved through the area, NWS employees at the Memphis center were collecting pilot reports, studying the Doppler radar and continually updating controllers on the location of possible and actual tornadoes.

“If these employees are removed from the centers, we will lose a valuable asset,” Carpenter said. “We currently receive instant updates on the ever-changing weather.
We don’t believe any technology that exists now will give us the speed or effectiveness with which we must have our weather reports delivered.

“The idea that a car wreck can cut our communication lines–which happened here recently–does not give me confidence we can get the weather information we need without on-site professionals.”

The NWS developed the consolidation proposal in response to an FAA request to cut the cost of the Center Weather Service Units located at each of the 21 en route centers, which is funded from the FAA budget. If the proposal is accepted, it is expected to undergo a nine-month testing and evaluation period. The final proposal also requires NTSB approval.