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FAA Kills Effort to Improve Weather Data Dissemination - (11/1/2005)

CONTACT: Michelle Foster, 817/656.4993; Phil Barbarello, 516/381.6424

WASHINGTON – Federal air traffic management coordinators today are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to take immediate action to restart work on an important safety feature to a software upgrade in the final development stages that would provide additional automated weather information to the computer system used by air traffic controllers monitoring the en route portion of flights.

The three-year-old project was proceeding, albeit slowly, up until mid-September, when FAA officials abruptly pulled the plug and put the project on ice for at least another six years.

“Once again, we are witnessing the one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach to safety and modernization that the FAA, regrettably, seems to feel the need to perfect,” National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr said. “This time, however, the subject matter involves weather, one of the most important factors in air safety. So it’s serious business and altogether unacceptable for the agency to act so cavalier in dismissing the fact that this is a documented safety issue. Plus, the FAA has spent considerable money, time and energy on this effort, only to now scrap it and pour those dollars down the drain. More fodder for the agency’s bulging file on waste and mismanagement.”

NATCA Eastern Regional Vice President Phil Barbarello made NATCA’s strong views known to agency officials last week, telling them that “we believe many safety incidents have gone unreported because of the lack of timely weather information dissemination.” One incident that was reported occurred in 2002 when a Continental Airlines Boeing 777 from Houston to Narita, Japan, encountered severe turbulence that injured one passenger. Although all communications were done by the book, the multiple handling of messages and aircraft frequency changes caused the aircraft to miss some pertinent weather information.

“Having more than one point of entry in our facilities for weather information also adds to an increased factor of human error,” said Barbarello, who helps oversee en route center matters for NATCA, which also represents traffic management coordinators. “And isn’t that the primary argument for automation, to take human error out of the equation? Now, you have an overworked and understaffed workforce of specialists in our traffic management units that will have to continue to manually input weather information.”

In addition to NATCA, opposition to the FAA’s flip-flop has come from at least one official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several FAA officials who were overruled by their superiors.

The bottom line, said Barbarello, is that “this process can be streamlined with benefits all the way around and to not do it is ridiculous. It sure sounds to me like this is just not high enough on the priority list for the agency and we would like to see that change.”

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