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Jacksonville Center Controllers to FAA: Keep Meteorologists Here - (2/12/2009)

CONTACTS: David Cook, NATCA Jacksonville Center Facility Representative, 904-334-1709; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org; Dan Sobien, National Weather Service Employees Organization President, 941-727-8620 or 202-420-1043

JACKSONVILLE – To cut costs the Federal Aviation Administration plans to remove on-site weather forecasters from Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) and the other 20 centers across the country. The face-to-face interaction that controllers currently share with meteorologists, who have local knowledge of the weather and can provide insight as to how weather will affect flight operations, will be lost when they are consolidated into two facilities in Kansas City and Maryland.

"The FAA’s plan of disseminating weather information via a computer is unsettling for the controllers,” said NATCA Jacksonville Center Facility Representative David Cook. “Being able to get real-time weather assistance for aircraft in distress is one of many functions we would lose out on. A computer can’t come to my sector when someone is short on fuel and the entire Southeast is fogged in. The FAA needs to put safety first and leave the meteorologists in the facilities where they are needed.”

NATCA and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) both oppose this plan as it will remove a layer of safety that the controller workforce finds invaluable. During the six-month long thunderstorm season, being able to speak face-to-face with a meteorologist familiar with the local weather on how a storm (or several storms) will impact the airspace is crucial to the facility’s operation. The same can be said for hurricane season.

In the current system meteorologists are stationed in a forecast unit in each one of the FAA’s 21 air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) across the country. This system has been in place since 1978 as a result of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation. The air traffic control system’s inability to quickly disseminate hazardous weather information to flight crews was found to be a major contributory factor to the 1977 Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga.

The creation of the forecast units in centers has allowed air traffic controllers to get face-to-face weather briefings that allow them to assist flight crews in navigating in and around the severe weather that routinely impacts the Southeast U.S. For Jacksonville Center controllers (responsible for the airspace over Florida, Southern Alabama, Georgia, most of South Carolina and the Southern portion of North Carolina as well as a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico) rely heavily on the assistance of the meteorologists to able to better provide hazardous weather information to flight crews, especially during hurricane season.

Said Cook “When a hurricane is bearing down on the Southeast U.S., our meteorologists work tirelessly to give us the information we need to keep traffic moving safely. These meteorologists work as long as 16-hours straight to provide us the support we need.”

Despite signed letters and documents from numerous groups, some of which include the NTSB, the Government Accountability Office, Congress and the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, urging the FAA to consider the importance of keeping the National Weather Service in each center, the agency still plans to move forward with contracting out the weather service – and in turn, the flying public’s safety.

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