U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is preparing for a showdown with the Federal Aviation Administration over what he says is a cost-cutting move that compromises public safety.
Moran, a Republican from Plainville, is opposed to the FAA's plan to transfer weather observations from trained professionals on the ground to air traffic controllers at Wichita’s Eisenhower National airport.
The issue came to a head two weeks ago when the FAA held a private meeting in Wichita and didn't invite Moran or other members of Kansas' congressional delegation.
FAA managers used a conference room inside the terminal at Eisenhower airport to conduct a Safety Risk Management panel on Feb. 4. The meeting was supposed to give local airport stakeholders a chance to weigh in on the agency’s proposal to end the Contract Weather Observer program.
About 20 aviation officials were there as the meeting began. No congressional representatives were on hand, and the meeting was closed to the public and media.
"The criticism, in my point of view, goes to the FAA," Moran says of the closed-door meeting. "We simply were not notified. Didn’t know about it."
Moran serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security--two entities that directly deal with FAA funding and policy. At the request of the airport's director, a staff member from Moran's office showed up at the end of the roughly five-hour meeting.
"Again, we regret that the FAA didn't notify members of Congress of their plans, and we're going certainly to have the opportunity to have their attention on the issue of contract weather observation as well as the broad issue of reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration," Moran says.
Ending the Contract Weather Observer program means air traffic controllers will be responsible for monitoring the weather and collecting data from automated sensors. There will be no more personal interpretations of current conditions such as deciding whether we have freezing rain, sleet or ice pellets, as the controllers won’t be required to leave the tower.
Moran says this change could hamper safety, given Wichita’s unique circumstances.
"We certainly have ever-changing weather that’s difficult to forecast and to report. It’s constantly changing," he says. "But even more importantly, Wichita is a place where there is significant amount of general aviation air traffic."
It’s not just that Eisenhower airport is busy; it’s the mix of aircraft that makes directing air traffic here challenging. On any given day, there could be small private planes, specialized military aircraft, test pilots for aircraft manufacturers, or commercial airliners in the airspace.
The FAA maintains that the transition to tower weather observations at Eisenhower and 56 other mid-size airports is just a proposal and part of an evaluation on the best use of fiscal resources. But according to those who attended the private meeting in Wichita, the agency’s facilitators announced early on that the decision had already been made. It was happening, period.
That didn’t sit well with those in the room, including senior weather observer Joe Rosner.
"They kind of went through this dog-and-pony show to make people feel like they are part of this decision, but this decision was made before we even stepped in the room," he says.
Rosner spent the past 40 years doing weather observations--for the military, three National Weather Service offices, and then Eisenhower Airport when he came on seven years ago as a contract weather observer.
Rosner was not allowed to speak at the meeting about any potential safety risks or hazardous effects that might be a result of the Contract Weather Observer program ending. Representatives from the airlines and aircraft manufacturers, and even the airport’s director, were not allowed to object to the plan.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell says he was surprised to learn that the FAA was moving forward because this was the first meeting on the proposal.
"This wasn’t a meeting to give a compelling argument to keep the observers in place because of all our concerns," Longwell says. "It was almost like, 'This is what we are doing. We really don’t care if you are on board or not. We are just kind of sharing with you what’s going to happen—you guys figure it out from there.'”
Longwell and others are worried about the reliability and accuracy of weather stats once the tower begins relying only on sensors without using information from the existing contract weather observers.
"It will never be the same. We’re also concerned there could be a fallout with airline companies trying to make choices of what cities they serve. And if this becomes an issue, a public safety issue, it could certainly turn into a decision to serve the cities where they have less risk involved," he says.
Read Longwell's letter to the FAA here:
Sen. Moran says he wants to stop the FAA from implementing the plan and will use upcoming hearings to make his case and "get the FAA's attention".
Legislation to keep the FAA going and funded is working its way through Congress right now.
"We have the ability to say, 'No money will be spent to implement this plan,'" Moran says. "There’s never a guaranteed outcome in these circumstances, but we certainly have the position as a member of the Commerce Committee and as a member of the Appropriations Committee to have significant input, and hopefully, the ability to change their mind. And if not, change their mind for them."
Moran isn’t the only lawmaker opposed to the FAA plan to transfer the on-the-ground weather reporting to air traffic towers.
"It is pleasing to me to know that the chairwoman and the ranking Democrat on the Aviation Appropriations Subcommittee, the Transportation Subcommittee, is on the same side of this issue as I am, so we have significant allies in that battle," he says.
Those high-ranking committee members, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, recently sent a letter to the Department of Transportation and the FAA calling for a new in-depth analysis that includes local stakeholder input and public comment before the FAA makes any changes at Eisenhower and the 56 other designated airports.
Read the senators' letter to the Department of Transportation here:
The senators are urging the agencies to stop the elimination of the Contract Weather Observer program. They say sufficient safety assessments have not been done because the FAA did not follow its own guidelines at Safety Risk Management Panels.
But that might not make a difference: It appears the FAA has already made the decision, for budgetary reasons.
The agency's pending budget request for fiscal year 2017 has a funding increase for operations. The FAA plans to offset that increase with savings it will realize from ending the Contract Weather Observer program--that is, unless Sen. Moran changes their mind.
While the next chapter of the weather observation plan plays out, Moran is ready to fight against another proposal: the privatization of the air traffic control system. The FAA Reauthorization Bill includes that provision in its overhaul of the agency.
Moran says transferring air traffic control to a private corporation has dangerous long-term implications on general aviation and small airports. Funding for the FAA is set to expire at the end of March.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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