FAA plan to eliminate air tower weather monitors raises safety questions

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“Air traffic controllers currently provide quality weather observation services at more than 300 airports around the country,” the agency said in a statement. “The FAA pays contractors to provide those same services at an additional 140 facilities around the country. In an effort to reduce costs without reducing the services or impacting safety, the FAA has been working through a phased plan to train controllers to take over those duties from the contractors.”

The agency had been scheduled to begin phasing out the contracted weather monitors on May 1, but the implementation of the proposal was pushed back until at least the end of fiscal 2013 in September after aviation groups raised concerns about safety.

The FAA has not ruled out returning to the plan when fiscal 2014 begins in October, however.

“After further reviewing the plan, the FAA has made the determination that it will extend its weather observer contracts through the end of this fiscal year to allow for more stakeholder input on how to proceed going forward,” the agency said.

The group that lobbies in Washington for airports, Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA), said Thursday that it was glad the FAA reversed course on the weather monitors.

“ACI-NA is extremely pleased that the FAA will be taking time to work closely with airport operators and other affected stakeholders on its [Contract Weather Observer] transition plan,” ACI-NA President Greg Principato said in a statement. “ACI-NA will continue to work with the FAA and our member airports over the next few months to ensure airport operator concerns are addressed.”

The National Air Traffic Controller Association (NATCA) said Thursday that its members could be capable of monitoring the weather and flights at airports that do not have heavy airline traffic.

“With adequate training and staffing, air traffic controllers can take over Contract Weather Observer (CWO) functions at some of the medium to lower level air traffic facilities,” NATCA said.

“Safety is always the number one priority for air traffic controllers, whether the responsibility is separating planes or giving weather advisories,” the group continued. “We are not actively pursuing taking on the CWO duties, but we do understand that budgets are tight and shrinking, and that the FAA is looking for ways to do more with less.”