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Anchorage Center Controllers to FAA: Keep Meteorologists Here - (2/10/2009)

CONTACTS:  Richard Fagg, NATCA Anchorage Center Facility Representative, 907-457-3325; 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

ANCHORAGE – In order to save money the Federal Aviation Administration has decided to remove all on-site weather forecasters in 21 air route traffic control centers across the country – choosing instead to consolidate them into two locations in Kansas City and College Park, Md., removing any access the controllers used to have to meteorologists with local knowledge of hazardous weather in their airspace.

The Anchorage Center air traffic controllers oppose this potentially dangerous plan – for the on-site weather forecasters provide an indispensable service to both the air traffic personnel of Anchorage Center but to the users flying to, through and within Alaskan airspace as well.  They, along with the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NSWEO), are asking the FAA to cancel the plan, due to their concern that the flying public will be in danger when controllers are no longer able to quickly send hazardous weather information to flight crews.

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 and is a result of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendation after it was determined that a major contributing factor to the 1977 Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga. was the air traffic control system’s inability to quickly send hazardous weather information to flight crews.

NATCA and the NWSEO’s opposition to this plan is rooted in both organizations’ concern over the potentially dangerous effects that removing meteorologists with local weather knowledge will have on the system’s safety.  Technology can only help controllers so much, when inclement weather arises the controllers are highly dependent on the on-site forecasters – the knowledge they have allowing the controllers to alert flight crews what kind of impact a specific weather cell will have on flight operations.

“The incredible speed with which the weather can change and rare weather events can begin in Alaska can be of significant impact," said NATCA Alaska Center Facility Representative Richard Fagg.  “The ability to advise our users on a real-time basis about the possible changes in the weather, and the potential impact it can have, is irreplaceable.  Because Alaska ’s weather can change so suddenly, without the help of the experienced and knowledgeable National Weather Service personnel the controllers of Anchorage Center would not be able to provide the users the safety and service they are entitled to.  The FAA’s first and foremost mission is to provide for the safe and efficient flow of air traffic and the weather forecasters are a vital component of that goal.”

Smaller aircraft flying short, local area flights are the norm in the more remote areas of Alaska and the pilots of those flights depend on all the weather information they can get in order to safely travel their routes on a daily basis.  Add to that the fact that wind shear and turbulence can occur in a short period of time – in addition to icing – and these meteorologists provide invaluable information to any pilot and flight crew traveling through Alaska.

Said Fagg:  "Often the weather forecasters’ provide information which allows flight crews to make decisions on which are the most efficient routes and altitudes to use."

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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