But after an abandoned effort two years ago to transfer weather-watching chores to tower controllers, the trained and certified weather observers who work as contractors to the FAA believe they still have a target on their backs.
At Fresno Yosemite and other airports across the country, automated and computerized weather observation systems are the primary source of information to pilots and the public about current conditions. At 136 airports nationwide, the FAA has contract weather observers, or CWOs, who work around the clock to make hourly checks as back up the automated equipment.
As recently as mid-May, according to FAA documents, the agency proposed to drop those CWOs at up to 57 airports. Instead of the comprehensive observations recorded by the contract workers, the FAA proposed to have air traffic controllers take on the additional task of making more limited observations under the agency’s Limited Aviation Weather Reporting System, of LAWRS.
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That reduced service, the weather observers say, poses a potential danger to pilots and the flying public — not only because of the the limitations of the automated systems, but also because air traffic controllers already have enough to do without worrying about checking on the weather.
If this wasn’t a public safety issue, I’d just take my retirement.
Blake Lewis, Contract Weather Observation office supervisor at Fresno Yosemite International
“The guys in the tower — give ’em a break, they need to keep these planes from running into each other landing and taking off — can’t always augment the weather report or put in the remarks that are needed. … Their first priority is to control these planes,” said Blake Lewis, a retired FAA air traffic controller who manages the CWO office at the Fresno airport. “When the controllers have to remember where 10 aircraft or more are, what are they going to do: prevent an aluminum shower or report a thunderstorm?
“We edit, augment and back up the automated equipment, and I don’t believe they (in the tower) have the time to do that.”
Among the airports on the FAA’s proposed cut list in May, in addition to Fresno Yosemite International, were Spokane International in Washington, Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National (formerly Mid-Continent) in Kansas and Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City. In California, airports proposed to lose their dedicated CWOs were Sacramento International, San Diego International - Lindbergh Field, and Norman Y. Mineta - San Jose International.
Ken Powell, the FAA’s air traffic manager at FYI, said he had not been informed of any plans to shift the weather-watching responsibilities to his controllers, adding that it would take several months to train them to take over the duties.
The Automated Surface Observation System or ASOS is a cluster of instruments located just north of the main FYI runway near the center of the airfield. Those instruments report the temperature, visibility, cloud ceiling, wind speed, barometric pressure, precipitation and other factors in real time. Those computerized readings are sent out in hourly reports and special reports when weather conditions deteriorate.
But the technology is not foolproof. The National Weather Service, which jointly runs the nationwide ASOS program with the FAA and Department of Defense, explains that “the main limitation is its ability to see around the horizon. Its eyes only see directly overhead.”
“Should there be a storm front moving in with darkening conditions, ASOS will not detect it until the storm begins to move over the sensors,” the weather agency reports on its ASOS website. “Likewise, ASOS cannot see patchy fog that is not located directly at the station location.”
“A few weeks ago, we had two thunderstorms on this airport that wouldn’t have been reported unless we were here,” Lewis said. “ASOS said ‘clear and 10,’ (clear skies and 10 miles visibility), but what we really had was broken clouds at 4,000 feet and thunderstorms to the east, moving east. For a pilot, that’s important to know there are electrical storms in the area.”
Lewis keeps a log of landmarks surrounding his office on the tarmac northwest of the tower to gauge visibility in periods of summer haze or the Valley’s thick winter tule fog. Landmark Aviation’s building on the airport is a quarter-mile from his observation spot. The FAA tower is a half-mile to the southeast, and the passenger terminal concourse is another quarter-mile past that. To the north, a tall palm tree at Blackbeard’s Family Fun Center is one mile away. And off in the distance on the horizon, a Fresno city water tower is three miles away. Pilots need to have an instrument rating to fly when the visibility is less than three miles.
And sometimes, automated machines just screw up. “The automated system can fail, if the power goes out or the whole system goes down,” Lewis said. “We’re trained to do weather observations like they did back in the 1960s and 1970s. We can back up the ASOS, and I don’t think they (in the tower) have the time to do that.”
8Number of certified contract weather observers working at Fresno Yosemite International
136Number of airports with certified contract weather observation offices
57Number of airports where FAA proposed to cut contract weather observers
Emil Sereda, a former FAA flight service employee who ran the weather office in Fresno for about eight years, recounted an incident from about 1997, when the FAA had transferred the weather responsibility to tower controllers. “One day in July a United Airlines pilot from back east called the tower and asked, ‘What’s going on out there? You’re reporting heavy snow.’ There was no snow, and it was 100 degrees here,” Sereda said. “That’s one of many errors the controllers allowed the computer to send out because they didn’t have time to keep an eye on the equipment.”
Planned cuts resurface
The FAA brought back the contract weather observers in 1998. But in 2013, as the FAA sought to cut costs amid a federal budget sequestration fiasco, the agency revived the notion of doing away with the CWOs — one of a number of budget cuts that was projected to save the agency more than $62 million in its Air Traffic Organization division. That effort was cut short, however, after widespread publicity prompted some members of Congress to intervene.
This time around, the proposal has largely flown under the radar.
Stephen Derrickson, president of IBEX Weather which holds the FAA contract for the Fresno weather office and 20 other airports in the Western and Northeastern U.S., said the word among the contractors now is that the latest effort “is on hold, but even if that’s true, what does ‘on hold’ mean?”
“Every couple of years the FAA hatches some sort of plan to get rid of contract weather observers and have the tower do it,” Derrickson added. “No doubt the FAA wants to not just have the 57 sites, but their end game is to have controllers doing the weather at every airport.”
The FAA’s proposed budget for 2015-16 includes no obvious mention of cutting the contract weather offices. It does state that “the Contract Weather Observation Program provides quality weather monitoring, augmentation and backup of automated weather systems.” An FAA budget plan issued in January indicates that the agency hoped to identify by Sept. 15 how much money could be saved by making changes to its human weather observation program.
The May documents from the agency indicate that the FAA is evaluating what level of observation is warranted at various airports — dedicated round-the-clock contract observers, limited observations by tower controllers, or observers who are not paid for by the federal government — based on a scoring matrix that considers an airport’s weather conditions, traffic volume and complexity. The proposal also notes that airports would be re-evaluated annually, with changes to be implemented “at least one year after evaluation, in order to give airports and carriers sufficient time to plan and adjust.”
In the document, the FAA maintains that under the limited-observation program, “controllers have been providing human augmentation without degradation of service.”
Fresno Yosemite International sits within the 16th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. A spokeswoman for Costa said his office is looking at the case after inquiries from The Bee. “Our understanding is that at this point there are going to be no closures,” Costa aide Kristina Solberg said Wednesday.
“But the FAA is reviewing all airports for efficiency and best practices. That’s where we’re at right now,” she added. “There’s not yet a time for when or if closures would take place.”