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

CONTACTS:  Scott Conde, NATCA Oakland Center Facility Representative, (510) 673-0237; 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

OAKLAND – In a cost-cutting move the FAA will remove all on-site weather forecasters from Oakland Center and every air route traffic control center (ARTCC) across the country.  Both NATCA and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) oppose this plan because of the potentially dangerous effect it could have on the safety of the flying public – by hindering a controllers’ ability to quickly send hazardous weather information to flight crews.

The current system has been in place since 1978, and is a result of a recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – after it was determined that a major contributing factor to the 1977 Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga. was the FAA’s air traffic control system’s inability to quickly send hazardous weather information to flight crews.  The FAA’s new proposal entails removing all on-site forecasters and consolidating them into two facilities in College Park, Md. and Kansas City.

Virtually every climate on the planet is represented within 200 miles of the San Francisco Bay area.  Responsible for this airspace, Oakland Center’s controllers worry that having a weather forecast facility in the middle of the U.S. is a dangerous concept, the forecasters at that facility having no local forecast knowledge.

In the current system the on-site forecasters provide multiple daily briefings directly to the operational staff, ensuring the most up-to-date forecasts for their respective local areas.  If they, or the controllers, need additional information they only have to walk 30 feet and speak to an expert face-to-face.

These controllers working in the San Francisco Bay Area are completely dependent upon accurate weather forecasting – it being one of the most challenging weather forecasting spots in the nation.

A good example of how the on-site meteorologists at Oakland Center play a major role in daily operations is their involvement in traffic flow at San Francisco International Airport.  Simultaneous approaches are used, where two aircraft land at the same time.  Because this type of operation can only be done in certain weather conditions the success and efficiency of air traffic operations in and out of San Francisco depends greatly on accurate forecasting from the center.  If the forecasts are incorrect, the margin of safety is greatly diminished as dozens of aircraft are forced into costly holding patterns – all operating in close proximity to each other while waiting for an opening to land.

The local knowledge provided by Oakland Center’s on-site forecasters helps the controllers avoid this type of situation.  The meteorologists are able to routinely override and overrule forecasts made by those from outside the region and save the aviation industry a lot of money.  In addition to that fiscal savings the meteorologists are also able to save the system by ensuring that traffic loads match capacity in hazardous weather conditions, enhancing the safety of the overall operation.

Said NATCA Oakland Center Facility Representative Scott Conde:  “When my family flies I want to know that every safety precaution that could be taken has been.  The FAA's attempt to consolidate the National Weather Service Units located in its air traffic control centers is yet another example of safety being for sale. Amounting to nothing more than being a penny-wise and a pound-foolish, the FAA is mortgaging the safety of passengers.”

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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