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Seattle Center Controllers to FAA: Keep Meteorologists Here - (2/11/2009)

CONTACTS:  Jim Ullmann, NATCA Seattle Center Facility Representative, 253-376-2592; 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

SEATTLE – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to remove all on-site weather forecasters from Seattle Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), in addition to removing them from every one of the FAA’s 21 ARTCCs around the country, in order to save money. 

Both NATCA and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) oppose this potentially dangerous plan and are asking the FAA to cancel it – worried that removing the meteorologists will hinder the controllers’ ability to quick send hazardous weather info to flight crews.

If the plan is to go through all meteorologists will be consolidated into two facilities in Kansas City and Maryland – removing the face-to-face interaction controllers currently share with them.

The current system, in which each center across the country has an on-site unit of weather forecasters, has been in place since 1978 due to a recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  The then air traffic control system’s inability to quickly disseminate hazardous weather information to flight crews was found to be one of the major contributing factors to the 1977 Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga.

Responsible for approximately 300,000 square miles of airspace, the Seattle Center controllers are often challenged by the infamous Pacific Northwest weather. 

Very unique geographically, Seattle Center is close in proximity to not only the Pacific Ocean but to mountainous terrain as well – leading to large amounts of precipitation throughout the airspace (including major icing of which smaller aircraft are more susceptible to).  In that terrain lie three major mountain ranges – the Siskiyou, Olympic and Cascade ranges; the latter of which is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Because the center’s airspace is in such close proximity to the only active volcanoes in the country, volcanic ash can often affect flight operations.  That volcanic activity often results in a large discharge of volcanic ash – which can travel up to hundreds, or even thousands, of miles and can threaten aircraft at all altitudes.

Said NATCA Seattle Center Facility Representative Jim Ullmann:  “The airlines, along with general aviation aircraft, count on accurate forecasting regarding the movement of these ash clouds and having weather professionals in our building ensures we have the most updated data to provide.”

This weather can render the technology that controllers normally use in flight operations useless, without guidance from an on-site meteorologist. 

“The weather personnel assigned to Seattle Center do a fantastic job keeping controllers advised of weather conditions that could have an adverse effect on flight operations,” said Ullmann.  “They have the local knowledge that is invaluable to not only air traffic controllers, but to pilots who depend on us to have the latest and most updated weather information.”

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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