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Memphis Center Controllers to FAA: Keep Meteorologists Here - (1/12/2009)

CONTACT: Ron Carpenter, NATCA Memphis Center facility representative, 901-494-7112; Doug Church, NATCA National Office, 301-346-8245; Dan Sobien, National Weather Service Employees Organization president, 941-727-8620 or 202-420-1043     

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Air traffic controllers at the Memphis Air Route Traffic Control Center today are joining with their on-site weather forecasting colleagues in calling for an end to plans by the Federal Aviation Administration to pull the meteorologists out of the facility and consolidate this critical nationwide weather service in a cost-cutting move that would threaten the safety of air travel in the skies above the Mid-South.

The FAA has given the National Weather Service (NWS) until Feb. 23 to submit its ideas on how to replace the current safe, effective system, which has been in place since 1978 as a result of a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB determined that one of the major contributing factors in the Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga., on April 4, 1977, was the FAA’s air traffic control system’s inability to disseminate hazardous weather information to flight crews on a real time basis. 

These forecast units in each of the FAA’s 21 regional air traffic control facilities provide real time, face-to-face weather guidance to air traffic controllers and air traffic management supervisors. The FAA wants to get rid of the local units and instead create two central units in Maryland and Kansas City. Both NATCA and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) are adamantly opposed to this plan for safety reasons.              

Controllers at Memphis Center are responsible for a wide swath of airspace extending over parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Missouri and Kentucky.   

“Historically, the weather in these states changes rapidly and at times hourly,” NATCA Memphis Center Facility Representative Ron Carpenter said. “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. At Memphis Center, we have a great group of NWS employees who gather pertinent weather information and continuously update the controller workforce of the ever-changing threat.”   

That threat was put on graphic display a year ago. On Feb. 5, 2008, as most of the country was concerned with the election results of “Super Tuesday,” the polls closed early in the Mid-South anticipating the severe weather to come. This was considered to be the worst outbreak since the beginning of the FAA’s Next Generation Weather Radar Program (NEXRAD). The death toll was 57. As the tornadoes moved through the area, NWS employees at Memphis Center were collecting pilot reports, studying the Doppler radar and continually updating controllers on the location of possible and actual tornadoes. Because of their actions, there was no damage or injuries to the flying public.    

“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.”   

Continued Carpenter: “The FAA thought it was a good idea to contract out the Flight Service stations a few years ago. They now have a hotline to report the ongoing problems due to lack of service. The more service is degraded, the more the flying public faces danger.” 

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