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Fort Worth Center Controllers Fighting to Keep Safe System for Predicting Hazardous Weather - (2/23/2009)

CONTACTS:  Russ Miller, NATCA Forth Worth Center Facility Representative, (817) 291-9158; 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

DALLAS-FORT WORTH – Valuing cost above safety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is going to remove on-site meteorologists from Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) and consolidate weather forecasters from each of the FAA’s 21 ARTCCs across the country into two facilities in Kansas City and College Park, Md. 

The controllers working at Forth Worth Center are responsible for aircraft traveling to, from and through parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas – roughly 175,000 square miles.  This airspace includes some of the most active thunderstorm territories in the country and without on-site forecasters the controllers at Fort Worth Center will be left to fend for themselves in determining how a weather cell will affect flight operations.

“This is the kind of ill-conceived cost-savings that turns out to be tragically expensive the day after a disaster,” said NATCA Fort Worth Center Facility Representative Russ Miller.  

NATCA and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) are demanding that the FAA cancel its plan due to both organizations’ concern that the flying public will be at risk if controllers are suddenly unable to quickly send hazardous weather info to flight crews.

Currently meteorologists are stationed in weather forecast units in each one of the FAA’s ARTCCs, 21 in total.  This system was put in place in 1978 as a result of a recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  The FAA’s air traffic control system’s inability to quickly disseminate information regarding hazardous weather to flight crews was found to be a major contributing factor in the 1977 Southern Airways DC-9 crash in New Hope, Ga.

The severe weather season for Fort Worth Center’s airspace begins in March, and, as of now, the controllers are lucky to have access to a rotation of forecasters who know the peculiarities of the local weather patterns and who have had many years of experience.

Just a few weeks away from their most challenging days of guiding pilots around convective and fast-moving weather, the controllers will be providing a much less-reliable public service if their weather information is delivered to them virtually from Kansas City or Maryland.

Removing the face-to-face access the controllers have to the meteorologists will not only be detrimental to their daily job responsibilities but will make it harder for the meteorologists to do to their jobs as well. 

Said Miller:  “When a spring hailstorm pelts our compound, we need our meteorologists to be able to step outside and examine the ice pellets and the swirling winds for themselves.”

In 1985, Delta flight 191 crashed while trying to land at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, only two miles away from Fort Worth Center.  Predicting and disseminating accurate information regarding thunderstorm effects played a huge role that day and Fort Worth Center has been adding trained personnel, better procedures and more sophisticated weather equipment ever since – until now.

“One of our meteorologists started at Fort Worth Center the week after the accident and I reported as a new air traffic controller a few months later,” said Miller.  “It has given me great reassurance over the years to know that he is driving to work watching the same skies that I am – and using his expertise to predict what the next eight hours may bring.

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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