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FAA Plan To Shift Weather Observations At Wichita Airport Raises Safety Concerns

Deborah Shaar

Federal aviation officials are expected in Wichita next week to review their plan for changing the way weather observations are done at the airport.

Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport and 56 other mid-size airports are on the FAA’s target list for transferring weather observations from certified weather professionals on the ground to air traffic controllers. KMUW’s Deborah Shaar reports on what’s at stake.

Once an hour, Joe Rosner leaves his desk in a Federal Aviation Administration building and walks about 100 yards to a small field on the east side of the Eisenhower airport complex. It’s the only place where he can see the horizon and have an uninterrupted view of the sky.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
A field near the airport where weather observers go to gather data.

On this day, with mostly clear skies and some wind, Rosner doesn’t have to check on visibility or make a determination about precipitation. On bad weather days, he has to identify whether it’s sleet, freezing rain or snow. Sometimes it’s not enough to see the weather: He actually has to feel it, on the surface--with his hands.

Precise judgments matter when it comes to weather observations, because the data Rosner collects feeds into the weather forecasts for the airport, pilots and the National Weather Service.

"We’re making determinations on whether the airport is closed, whether they are getting any kind of stuff," Rosner says. "When we take the visibility down to a quarter mile, that pretty much shuts this place down."

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Joe Rosner works as a senior weather observer in the Wichita airport Contract Weather Observers program.

Rosner is the senior weather observer in the Contract Weather Observer program at Eisenhower. The FAA contracts with outside companies to provide professionally trained and certified weather observers, including the six who staff the office near Wichita's airport.

Many contract weather observer are meteorologists or have specialized military weather training. For many years, the National Weather Service was responsible for the training, oversight, certification and facility inspection for the Limited Aviation Weather Reporting Stations (LAWRS) and the Contract Weather Observers. But in October 2013, the FAA removed the NWS from the process and took over those duties.

"Basically it is a 24/7 operation and we’re here all the time. Weather never sleeps, especially operational weather," Rosner says.

An Automated Surface Observation System, or ASOS, gathers real-time weather data--such as the temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure--through its sensor near the airport’s main runway. It’s the weather observers’ job to augment this system and make sure the data is accurate before it’s sent out.

According to the FAA’s 2005 policies for surface weather observations: “Certified observers are responsible for the completeness and accuracy of the weather observation. Automated weather observing systems are, by design, viewing a smaller area than a human observer. Therefore, the observer is responsible for providing additional information that covers a larger area, when operationally significant. The certified observers also serve as the backup in the event of an automated sensor failure.”

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
An Automated Surface Observation System, or “ASOS," gathers real-time weather data, but Rosner says he and other contract weather observers are constantly correcting the data.

Rosner says they constantly correct the system because the automated sensors don’t catch everything.

"There’s a lot of times when you can have lower clouds moving in from the north that it won’t see, but it would be keeping a ceiling," he says. "So that’s a lot of the stuff that we do. We put clouds in there that it’s not picking up and stuff. It does not pick up lightning and it does not pick up freezing rain."

After decades of serving Wichita’s airport, the Contract Weather Observer program here could end if a plan by the FAA moves forward. The agency is considering eliminating the weather observers and instead, training air traffic controllers to monitor the skies. The control tower would become a Limited Weather Reporting Station (LAWRS) that would rely on the automated system and tower weather observations.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Victor White, director of the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, in a 2015 file photo.

Eisenhower Airport director Victor White says the local aviation community is concerned about the plan.

"I’ve heard from a number of folks already about this proposal and there’s a serious concern on the part of controllers, as well as aircraft operators and even the airlines, that they are afraid that the automation that is out there is not going to be nearly as accurate as what they are receiving right now," White says.

When the weather deteriorates, the current trained observers are busy making surface checks more than once an hour to stay on top of conditions that change in seconds. Bad weather also makes it a busy time in the tower as controllers focus on directing air traffic in unfavorable conditions.

White says the FAA’s plan to make the air traffic controllers responsible for weather functions could create a safety issue in more ways than one.

"One, by taking the controllers away from their radios, away from the tower, that presents the separation-of-aircraft concern, and secondly, these folks are new to the weather observation function," he says. "And no matter how much training they get, they might not do as good a job as the folks who have been doing it for years and years as trained weather observers."

Airports proposed for weather transition:

If air traffic controllers take over weather duties, all observations will be done from the tower. An August 2015 FAA order and a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association state that observations can only be taken within the tower cab and employees are not required to go outside to conduct a LAWRS observation.

The National Weather Service office on the west side of the airport stopped doing personal observations years ago and relies on the around-the-clock data provided by the contract weather observers. The weather service uses that surface information to formulate forecasts and predict weather patterns. The office then sends the information out to its partners such as the airport, aviation community, county agencies and the media.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Brad Ketcham with the National Weather Service.

Brad Ketcham, the lead forecaster at National Weather Service office in Wichita, says the ground observers are crucial to the airport’s operation.

"We also talk to the airport authority. They call us before winter events or when we’re expecting onset of freezing precipitation because they’ve told us before they go to clean the runways or de-ice on the runways. Timing is very critical because of the amount of money it costs to do that," he says.

Ketcham says Wichita and south-central Kansas are in a prime location for things to come together for severe weather--often suddenly. With 12 meteorologists, his office is the one of the busiest in the country for issuing severe weather warnings for everything from thunderstorms to tornadoes to winter storms.

"The winter months are very challenging forecast-wise because it can be humbling to forecast winter weather," Ketcham says. "All it takes is just a couple of degrees of temperatures and you either have 8 inches of snow or you have an inch of ice."

The mix of air traffic around Eisenhower airport is intense. There are commercial airliners, small private planes, aircraft manufacturers who do flight testing and military aircraft.

Airport director Victor White says the diversity of planes and speeds creates a challenging environment for air traffic controllers. He hopes when the FAA convenes its safety review panel next week, officials will consider the local situation and concerns.

"...What we’re hoping happens is that there will be enough opposition from the airlines and other aircraft operators here that the FAA looks at this and says, 'You know, this is not a really good idea for Wichita,'" White says.  

The FAA declined an interview but did issue a written statement that says air traffic controllers are currently providing weather reporting services at at least 390 airports, and the agency is evaluating whether to transition 57 other airports.

The agency says no decisions have been made at any facilities about the Contract Weather Observer program. But local observer Joe Rosner thinks the plan is a done deal--and is worried beyond losing his job.

"I don’t think that ASOS is more precise than a human being taking observations. There’s no way," he says. "It can’t see what I can see. I can see clouds on the horizon and there’s no way ASOS can see it."

The current contract for the weather observers including Rosner runs through October. 


Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.