FAA uses Md. skies to test remote forecasts


August 11, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

It has been nearly 30 years since Southern Airways Flight 242 unknowingly flew into a violent storm that spawned six tornadoes and hail so powerful that it broke the plane's engines. The accident on a rural Georgia highway killed 72, nine of them residents of New Hope, Ga., where the plane crashed.

The accident was blamed on the failure of pilots to get timely weather reports and prompted the addition of meteorologists and new radar to 21 regional air traffic control centers handling high-altitude traffic between airports.

The Weather Service and Federal Aviation Administration now are trying to decide whether those on-site meteorologists are necessary. This week, the weather service began a monthlong test in most of Maryland's skies to deliver forecasts remotely to the regional air traffic control center in Leesburg, Va.

"We pay the weather service $12 million to do face-to-face briefings for us at our facilities," said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. "We could be doing this remotely through video conferencing. It's a more efficient and cost-effective way of doing things."

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the National Weather Service Employees Organization oppose the removal of meteorologists from the centers and have mailed complaints to Congress and the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The sentiment of the vast majority of air traffic controllers nationwide is that the enactment of this proposal would be a mistake and would compromise aviation safety by taking away vital professional assistance that controllers need immediately, especially in critical situations," according to a letter the weather service union is asking its members to mail to Congress.

The 1977 Southern Airways tragedy jolted the federal bureaucracy into quick action, but the changes were soon mired in bureaucracy.

The regional air traffic control center based in Atlanta, the one responsible for the traffic over New Hope, got staff and new radar equipment within a year. It took more than four years, however, for any of the remaining centers to get the upgraded equipment, according to a 1982 Washington Post article.

The delay was blamed on budget and turf wars, a conclusion that could describe the situation today.

Takemoto said that a dollar figure has not been put on the potential savings of withdrawing the meteorologists. But Kevin Johnston, the aviation services branch chief for the National Weather Service, said that the FAA's cost requirements have been very specific: cut weather-related "labor costs" by 20 percent, or about $2.4 million.

In addition to having these forecasts delivered at a cheaper price, the FAA wants them around the clock. Now, meteorologists are stationed on-site 16 hours a day.

The result of this budget fight has been the weather service's current exercise over Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic skies, earlier reported in Government Executive magazine.

During the exercise, responsibility for communicating high-altitude weather information to regional air traffic controllers will be sometimes transferred to the local forecasting office in Sterling, Va. This office also serves the region's myriad other weather needs, such as tornado and flood alerts.

In addition, technology has been upgraded at the Leesburg facility to enable on-site meteorologists to work as a team with colleagues at Sterling.

Previously, the two groups of meteorologists "didn't talk. They didn't have compatible systems able to do that," Johnston said. An internal weather service report in December found that this lack of compatibility led to an "aviation forecast process that is lacking consistent, accurate, relevant weather information and contributes to low trust and confidence" among end-users.

Johnston said the exercise's model brings more resources "into our existing capabilities. ... It's a way to absorb the cost reduction and at the same time, make some enhancements." For instance, during peak air traffic times, meteorologists could work on-site and then transfer that responsibility off-site during slow hours.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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