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Airport weather observers have safety concerns over new FAA plan
Saturday, 23 March 2013 13:48

Airport weather observersLocal airport weather observers feel that people who know nothing about their job are making some dangerous choices for them. If the FAA continues with their present plan the Lubbock airport contract weather observers will be out of a job May 1.

And they are not alone.

There is a rumor circulating in the weather observer world that all 109 weather observer offices, with the exclusion of the Alaska region, will be cut from the FAA budget.

The weather observers are located in a small office east of the airport, where they go outside several times an hour and make observations about the current weather. Contracted weather observers are certified by the National Weather Service to assist the automated surface observing system, according to Ken Perkins the PATCO Union representative.

These observations are important for pilots for a variety of reasons, including takeoffs and landings, according to Perkins.

The observers strongly believe their job increases safety for the flying public.

Perkins and other observers can’t wrap their heads around why the FAA would want to cut their program. They certainly don’t believe it’s a monetary issue. Observers make about $55,000 a year, but they have no health insurance or pension plan, he said.

The FAA will not supply them with an office bigger than 200 square feet and it doesn’t provide the eight observers with computers or even printer paper, Perkins said. Their current computer is on loan from the Lubbock National Weather Service office.

FAA public affairs manager Lynn Lunsford wrote in an e-mail that the cost of the contract weather observers is just less than $1,000 a day.

“Overall, the FAA would save approximately $359,000 next year by having our own personnel perform this work,” Lunsford wrote.

The Avalanche-Journal submitted an open records request to see documentation of the program’s cost, but that request was denied by the FAA.

Lunsford said the FAA’s decision to cut the program came at the heels of declined air traffic at Preston Smith International Airport.

“The Federal Aviation Administration continues to provide a high level of weather information for pilots using Lubbock’s Preston Smith International Airport. Due to lower traffic levels, the facility no longer qualifies for contract weather observation. This service which primarily consists of supplementing information from the airport’s sophisticated automated weather station — is now being performed by specially trained air traffic controllers. The level of safety will not be affected.”

An FAA report shows that in 2000, Lubbock’s airport recorded 115,787 operations, but in 2012 the airport recorded just 79,702 operations. The FAA’s reports are available for the public on its website.

Perkins said the FAA has service level determination rules to classify the types of airports. Lubbock is a B class station and Perkins claims the FAA wanted to close 15 of those stations. However, Perkins and others now believe all contract weather stations will be closed, except for the Alaska region, no matter what the rules are or what the sequester status is.

Before January, an airport would have had to rated as a C class station for two consecutive years before weather observers were pulled, but the FAA has done away with the rule, Perkins said.

“In order to do that they had to change the rules,” Perkins said.

The FAA was contacted to make further comments, but they declined.

Perkins said the Shreveport Regional Airport was in Lubbock’s situation in 2006 but due to a public outcry the FAA did not make the change. The Shreveport airport is now back on the chopping block, according to Perkins.

Public pressure is the key to stopping the cut, Perkins said. He praised U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer’s office for his support.

Neugebauer, R-Lubbock, released a statement: “Whenever changes are proposed to airport operations, my first priority is making sure that we maintain the highest possible standards of safety and service for West Texas. I’m aware of concerns with the FAA’s decision-making process on Contract Weather Observers, and I’m in contact with the agency to make sure they’re using accurate analysis and won’t jeopardize the safety of the flying public.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association declined to make a comment, instead they deferred to the FAA.

“Their job is keeping people safe. Our job is to report weather to them,” Perkins said. “We’re support to them (air traffic controllers) for weather.”

Martinaire pilot Philip Kendall, says he frequently flies into Lubbock, and he was surprised to learn of the FAA’s proposed plan.

“With no solid plan in place to replace the human observers; it is difficult to comprehend the way a machine that’s not reliable can be relied upon to provide an accurate forecast of fast changing weather in active area such as KLBB,” Kendall wrote in a letter.

Perkins agreed with Kendall’s assessment of the automated system; it can quit working for minutes or hours sometimes because its sensor gets dirty, Perkins said. The weather observers also claim the automated system does not pick up all weather conditions.

“A human being actually has to observe a thunderstorm to report it,” Perkins said.

The weather observers released a document to the Avalanche-Journal stating the automated surface observing system doesn’t pick up the following types of weather: lightning, tornadoes, whirlwinds, hails, freezing drizzle, ice crystals, blowing sand and dust, smoke, clouds above 12,000 ft. and snow accumulation rate and depth.

“They will never, ever be able to replace a human observer,” Perkins said.


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