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Minneapolis Center Controllers Fightting to Keep Safe System for Predicting Hazardous Weather - (2/17/2009)

CONTACTS:  Craig Boehne, NATCA Minneapolis Center Facility Representative, 612-816-8483; 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

MINNEAPOLIS – In order to save money the FAA plans to remove on-site weather forecasters from the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, where controllers are responsible for air traffic in all or part of nine states including weather situations:  North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Michigan.  All meteorologists will be consolidated into one of two facilities in Kansas City and Maryland – removing the face-to-face interaction controllers currently share with them.  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.
The current system, in which on-site meteorologists are stationed in each one of the FAA’s 21 centers across the country, has been in place since 1978 due to a recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  The FAA’s air traffic control system’s inability to quickly dissemination 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 controllers at Minneapolis Center work together with these meteorologists in order to safely guide air traffic and accurately predict what effect a storm cell could have on flight operations.  In addition to the thunderstorms that all areas of the country experience, the controllers at Minneapolis Center face unique issues due to Lake Michigan – with lake effect snow and the icing caused by lake effect enhancement throwing a wrench into the operation.  With the high amount of general aviation traffic traveling through the airspace, that ice can be one of the most dangerous conditions that pilots will face.

The on-site forecasters at Minneapolis Center also provide critical information in determining when to close the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport for snow removal and warn the Metropolitan Airport Commission on when to begin deicing planes.  When it appears as if hazardous weather could have an effect on the traffic flow of the airspace the forecasters work together with the controllers on where and how to reroute traffic. 

Said NATCA Minneapolis Center Facility Representative Craig Boehne:  “The personal interactions we as controllers share with the forecasters, as well as the local weather insight they provide, are what allow for the safe and efficient movement of aircraft in Minneapolis Center’s airspace and the entire National Airspace System.  While a combined weather center in Kansas City could forecast thunderstorms and other weather formations I worry whether or not the meteorologists there, not familiar with the local weather nuances in our airspace, will be able to act on our local behalf to the best advantage of the flying public traveling through our airspace.”

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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