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Chicago Center Controllers Fightting to Keep Safe System for Predicting Hazardous Weather - (2/19/2009)

CONTACTS:  Jeff Richards, NATCA Chicago Center Facility Representative, (630) 544-1372; 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

CHICAGO – Air traffic controllers at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), along with their on-site meteorologists, are asking the FAA to cancel its plan to remove weather forecasters in order to cut costs – relocating all on-site forecasters to two facilities in Kansas City and College Park, Md.

NATCA and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) are both opposed to this change due to the potentially dangerous effects it could have on the safety of the operation and therefore, the flying public.

Responsible for the traffic going in to, through and out of parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, the controllers at Chicago Center are wary of the FAA’s plan – concerned that the flying public will be in danger if controllers are unable to relay hazardous weather information to the flight crews.

The current system, in which on-site weather forecasters are stationed at each one of the FAA’s 21 centers, has been in place since 1978 – due to a recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  It was found that the air traffic control system’s inability to quickly provide hazardous weather information to the flight crew was a major contributing factor in the 1977 Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga.

Technology may rule the majority of air traffic control operations but hazardous weather can throw a wrench in those plans – necessitating the presence of an on-site meteorologist familiar with the local area that can best advise controllers as to what kind of impact a particular storm cell will have on the operation.

The controllers working the Chicago Center airspace face many challenges.  In the summer controllers are on alert for tornadoes from the infamous Tornado Alley.  In the winter lake effect snow can affect operations.

Said NATCA Chicago Center Facility Representative Jeff Richards:  "The FAA thinking that interacting with a meteorologist in Kansas City via instant messaging and video chatting will be a suitable substitute for the hands-on problem solving that human interaction provides would be comical – if the safety of the flying public wasn’t involved."

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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