FAA Puts Off Plan for Air Controllers to Report on Weather

Continental Airlines flight 3306 from Toronto casts a shadow over a snow covered parking lot as it approaches Newark airport in Newark, New Jersey. Continental Airlines flight 3306 from Toronto casts a shadow over a snow covered parking lot as it approaches Newark airport in Newark, New Jersey. Nick Ut/AP File Photo

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday delayed a plan to save money by shifting airport weather reporting responsibilities from specialized contractors to full-time air traffic controllers amid uncertainties in the industry about workloads and flight safety.

Soon after sequestration kicked in on March 1 and began forcing across-the-board budget cuts throughout government, FAA took up an existing plan to save $57 million a year by adding weather data filing to the duties of controllers by the end of this fiscal year. The agency had begun implementing the shift in duties on Wednesday at 14 airports, with others set to follow later this year and next, but then on Thursday postponed the move.

“Air traffic controllers currently provide quality weather observation services at more than 300 airports around the country,” said Deputy Assistant Administrator Laura Brown in a Thursday statement. “The FAA pays contractors to provide those same services at an additional 140 facilities around the country. In an effort to reduce costs without reducing the services or impacting safety, the FAA has been working through a phased plan to train controllers to take over those duties from the contractors. After further reviewing the plan, the FAA has made the determination that it will extend its weather observer contracts through the end of this fiscal year to allow for more stakeholder input on how to proceed going forward.”

A separate FAA move to save money by closing contracted towers at 149 airports by June remained in limbo Thursday. President Obama on Wednesday signed a bill allowing the agency flexibility to cancel planned furloughs of controllers by repurposing longer-term airport improvement funds. The FAA is still studying that legislation, according to a spokesman.

“The contract towers are still on the closing list for June 15, 2013,” Ron Taylor, president of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, told Government Executive. “In a nutshell, the FAA has the controllers in a holding pattern.....low on fuel.”

Adding weather reporting duties to the daily routines of controllers is a promising or worrisome idea, depending on who is asked. “With adequate training and staffing, air traffic controllers can take over contract weather observer functions at some of the medium-to-lower-level air traffic facilities,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokeswoman Sarah Dunn said in a statement. “Safety is always the number-one priority for air traffic controllers, whether the responsibility is separating planes or giving weather advisories. We are not actively pursuing taking on the CWO duties, but we do understand that budgets are tight and shrinking, and that the FAA is looking for ways to do more with less.”

Airports Council International -- North America President Greg Principato said his organization is “extremely pleased that the FAA will be taking time to work closely with airport operators and other affected stakeholders on its CWO transition plan. ACI-NA will continue to work with the FAA and our member airports over the next few months to ensure airport operator concerns are addressed.”

Air traffic controller Todd Lewis was warier. “We’re required to have extensive training and knowledge of all aspects of the current weather, with the exception of being forecasters,” said Lewis, who is NATCA’s secretary and treasurer for the contract tower in Santa Fe, N.M. “This includes all kinds of precipitation, cloud types, ceilings, wind direction and intensity, visibility and obscuration; in-flight and on the ground.” Because the hourly weather report is automated through instruments, controllers need to originate a weather report “only when the system is down or there is a big change in the weather between hourly reports,” he said.

The problem, however, is that “having to stop every hour to observe and disseminate a weather report makes it very difficult to do when you are busy. Filing an hourly weather observation takes your full concentration, even when you are not busy. In FAA towers and contract towers, controllers are usually too busy to stop at a certain time every hour to redirect their focus to a lesser-priority duty without additional staffing and training.”

At least one weather specialist held up the middle ground. Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said, “Weather observation is an inherently governmental function and should be handled by government employees. However, most government employees should be trained, and not just with a three-week course, to understand what they’re looking at.”

Though the union leader would prefer full-time federal employees to contractors for safety reasons, he acknowledged that this costs money. “If controllers are working to guide planes down, weather reporting is a secondary function and something will fall through the cracks. The more eyes on the sky the better” for weather forecasting, Sobien says, “but that shouldn’t be their main job.”

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