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Aviation

FAA Holds Private Meeting In Wichita On Airport Weather Observations

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Deborah Shaar
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Airport Director Victor White and Senior Weather Observer Joe Rosner before the private closed-door meeting began.

A team from the Federal Aviation Administration was in Wichita Thursday to go over a plan to shift weather reporting from trained observers on the ground to air traffic controllers at Eisenhower National Airport.

About 20 local aviation leaders attended the closed-door meeting inside the terminal at Eisenhower airport. Media were not allowed to hear the presentation.

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Credit Deborah Shaar

The FAA wants to end the Contract Weather Observer Program at Eisenhower and at 56 other mid-size airports across the country.

The CWO program has been serving a crucial role at Wichita’s airport for decades. The issue is that under the FAA's new plan, people in the towers would rely on sensors for weather data and may not be able to accurately determine conditions like freezing rain near the surface.

Professionally trained and certified weather observers provide hourly updates on current conditions to an automated computer system that feeds weather data to the airport and National Weather Service office. Six people work at the Wichita office covering shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many contract weather observers are meteorologists or have specialized military weather training.

Senior weather observer Joe Rosner was at the meeting and says the FAA recognizes there could be a safety hazard of untimely and inaccurate data.

"Some of the data that comes on the sensors is not going to get to the pilots in time, or they are not going to be able to check it in time, and so it may be untimely," Rosner says.

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Credit Deborah Shaar

Rosner says the agency used metrics to determine that the hazard is minimal and had a low possibility of creating an accident.

An agency report from August says air traffic controllers would not be allowed to leave the tower to do observations, and the controllers would make directing air traffic a priority over weather reporting functions.

If the FAA’s change goes through, the air traffic controllers at Eisenhower would rely on an Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) located near the airport’s main runway for current conditions. The sensor gathers real-time weather data such as the temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure.

The weather observers not only augment this system, but they also correct the data routinely, as the sensor can’t detect weather conditions such as freezing rain, cloud ceiling levels or lightning. 

Airport director Victor White says he’s concerned that this transition could create a safety issue.

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"There’s so many limitations on those automated sensors," White says. "There are types of weather that the airlines will not be able to obtain here."

Local air traffic controllers and pilots were at the meeting.

Sen. Jerry Moran’s office says neither the senator nor his staff were notified about the meeting.

Moran issued a written statement calling the FAA’s plan “hugely concerning.”

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Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar

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