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Controllers Ask FAA to Reverse Safety-Jeopardizing Decision to Remove On-Site Weather Service Units from En Route Centers - (10/19/2006)

WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to eliminate on-site meteorologist positions – called a Center Weather Service Unit (CWSU) – at each of the 21 Air Route Traffic Control Centers across the United States, a decision that air traffic controllers warn would leave them without the ability to obtain and relay vital weather information in a timely manner to aircraft experiencing difficulty and would have an adverse effect on safety. 

The FAA plans to contract with a commercial weather company to provide meteorological service from one remote centralized location. But NATCA believes this business decision would both degrade the margin of safety and fail to support a recent National Transportation Safety Board “Safety Alert” to Instrument Flight Rules pilots about the need to actively maintain awareness of severe weather along their route of flight. Specifically, the safety alert states, “The primary job of air traffic control is to keep IFR aircraft separated. When their workload permits, controllers are also required to provide additional services such as weather advisories, and, upon pilot request, suggested headings to avoid radar-displayed precipitation.” 

The CWSUs were established by the FAA in 1978 as a result of a recommendation by the NTSB, which determined that one of the major contributing factors in a Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga., on April 4, 1977 was that the FAA lacked the ability to disseminate hazardous weather information to flight crews in real time. The FAA contracted with the NWS to provide meteorologists to staff a newly established weather unit at each center. 

“We share the view of the National Weather Service Employees Organization that the elimination of the CWSUs through centralization would be a major setback for aviation safety, with degraded service for en route traffic and elevated safety concerns for general aviation,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey said. “There are numerous instances where lives have been saved by the rapid dissemination of accurate and timely weather information by CWSU personnel. These meteorologists have contributed immensely to aviation safety and we would like to see the FAA reverse its decision and maintain CWSU personnel at each of our centers.”

NATCA does not believe that weather information provided from a remote, centralized location, can be obtained at the same speed as that provided on-site by the CWSU. And in aviation, Forrey said, saving time means saving lives. “With CWSUs in the facility, controllers have the face-to-face ability to brief with CWSU personnel on items of interest with weather that changes minute-by-minute,” he said. “You don’t have to try and get someone on a phone or teleconference and wait to see items brought up on the computer screen in front of you. This takes time when you have a fast moving and changing environment. Therefore, we don’t want to see any changes to the current service until there is a way to make the delivery of critical weather information even faster than it is today so that the margin of safety is enhanced to its maximum level.” 

The NWS meteorologists also conduct weather refresher training for all air traffic controllers, which significantly improves the controllers’ awareness of how and why hazardous weather conditions occur and how these conditions affect aircraft in flight. In addition the on-site meteorologists are right there to answer controller or even pilot questions regarding questionable weather observations when interpretation is needed immediately.”

Forrey added: “The meteorologists at one remote location will not have the experience and expertise gained after 28 years by the National Weather Service meteorologists for a particular area’s unique weather conditions.” 

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