Turbulent Weather

Forecasters to be ejected from air traffic control centers.

For 28 years, government air traffic controllers and meteorologists have worked elbow to elbow guiding planes safely in and around angry skies. It's a comfortable arrangement but by no means perfect, so the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Weather Service have undertaken separate and controversial efforts to change it.

Last September, FAA put NWS on notice that it wants to cut funding to the 21 Center Weather Service Units at its en route air traffic control centers by the end of this year. FAA pays NWS $10.6 million a year to staff and operate the service units with 84 meteorologists 16 hours a day, every day. It also told NWS it needs service around-the-clock.

FAA contracted with the Weather Service after the 1977 crash of a Southern Airways DC-9 near New Hope, Ga., killed 73 people. The airplane flew into a severe thunderstorm and was pelted with hail. Its windshield broke and its engines failed. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident in large part on FAA's inability to provide the pilots with up-to-the-minute information about hazardous weather. According to a September 2005 letter from FAA's director of system operations, Michael J. Sammartino, to Weather Service Director D.L. Johnson, which was obtained by Government Executive, the aviation agency figures it can save about 20 percent, or $2 million, by consolidating or even eliminating on-site weather aid at the en route centers. It cannot eliminate the forecasts for safety reasons, but it would get them remotely-and maybe not from the Weather Service. On Capitol Hill and among members of the two agencies' employee unions, there is talk that FAA intends to hire a private company.

The agency is circumspect about its plans. FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto says only that the agency is "looking at ways to do remote weather briefings" with technologies "that are not dependent on involving anybody outside the FAA." The motive? "Nothing beyond our overall mandate to do things more efficiently and cost effectively," he says. "But that's a very important mandate, obviously."

What FAA pays is just more than one-tenth of 1 percent of its $8.4 billion operations budget, but the money is 10 times as important to the Weather Service, whose entire budget is $848 million in 2006. At the same time FAA is campaigning to cut costs across the board, NWS is crusading to please all its customers. A Weather Service employee team evaluated aviation-related products and services and made the case for change in a December report to management. "FAA is seeking efficiencies and is listening to other weather providers who are challenging NWS' long-standing position as the primary source for aviation weather products and services," the team said, noting that the likely outcome is loss of funding if the Weather Service does not meet FAA's requirements. The team concluded that management of aviation weather services was weak and fragmented at both agencies, and proposed consolidating the responsibilities of the en route center meteorologists and their counterparts in the 122 NWS local forecast offices nationwide.

By early September, NWS will conclude a six-week prototyping exercise designed to show how it can best provide the remote service FAA wants. The test involves the local forecast office for Washington in Sterling, Va., and the en route control center in Leesburg. Va., for airspace above the District of Columbia, most of Maryland and Virginia, Delaware and parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. Air traffic managers in Leesburg are getting their forecasts directly from Sterling during two eight-hour shifts each week. Aviation meteorologists in the service unit are standing by as backup.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the National Weather Service Employees Organization have denounced FAA's consolidation proposal as misguided. By the end of June, more than 300 air traffic managers at 12 of the 21 en route centers had signed and sent letters of complaint to the NTSB. "It is our opinion that the elimination of CWSUs with NWS meteorologists would result in the degradation of our ability to obtain and relay vital weather information in a timely manner and would have an adverse effect on safety," the petitions state.

NWS deputy director, John Jones, insists the Weather Service would have undertaken its prototyping activity even without FAA's input. But he hints he's also uncomfortable with any plan that would trade his forecasters for ones in the private sector: "We believe that our mission to protect lives and property through forecasts and warnings is definitely inherently governmental."

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