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UPDATE: US Senate Committee Approves FAA Mandate On Contract Weather Observers

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Deborah Shaar
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KMUW/File photo

Updated on 03/22/16:

Congress passed a bill extending the Federal Aviation Administration’s powers and programs through mid-July to give lawmakers time to work on a longer-term aviation policy measure.

The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature. The FAA’s current operating authority was set to expire March 31.

A U.S. Senate committee passed its own long-term bill last week. It included a mandate that requires the FAA to complete a sufficient safety review and issue a report to Congress before making any changes to the Contract Weather Observer program at airports across the country including Wichita’s Eisenhower National airport.

The full Senate and House are expected to take up the bill next month.

Here’s more on the FAA mandate:

Original Story:

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas is following through with his promise to make sure any changes to airport weather reporting are done with sufficient safety reviews and public input.

He helped get a mandate for the Federal Aviation Administration into legislation that’s expected to be voted on tomorrow.

The mandate comes in the Senate’s bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and its programs through the end of Fiscal Year 2017.

Moran says that if approved, the FAA would be required to meet several criteria before ending the Contract Weather Observer program at Wichita’s Eisenhower National airport or any other airports.

"Most importantly, a significant study about the safety aspects of this issue and a report back to Congress and in the interim, a prohibition against the FAA proceeding with its plan," he says.

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Credit senate.gov
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Language from the Senate FAA bill includes a mandate that the agency must submit a report outlining safety risks of the potential cancelation of the Contract Weather Observer program.

The mandate would also require the FAA to explain the process used to analyze the safety hazards and provide details on how an airport can accurately report rapidly changing severe weather conditions without the contract weather observers.

The FAA is considering shifting Eisenhower and 56 other airports across the country to a limited weather reporting system where air traffic controllers would rely on automated sensors for current conditions.

Moran has serious concerns with the plan and recently notified the FAA of his opposition.

"There would be a significant change in the level of safety if you’re asking the air traffic controllers to perform additional tasks," he says.  

When the FAA held a safety review meeting in Wichita in February, it didn’t notify Moran or other members of Kansas’ congressional delegation.

The senator says the agency announced at that meeting that it was terminating the Contract Weather Observer program despite the objections and concerns raised by aviation officials and local government leaders.

"It always makes you wonder if an agency is attempting to act quickly to avoid congressional oversight," he says. "I’m critical of the FAA for not notifying us. It’s just a reminder that every member of Congress has to be vigilant."

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Credit Department of Transportation
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The FAA's budget proposal outlines the cost-cutting measure of ending the Contract Weather Observer program.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita is also against the plan. He says it’s imperative that the FAA hears from the public on this issue.

"They should hear from the local people, local leaders, local air traffic control people—all the persons that are actually impacted by this decision before making what is a pretty radical departure from the historic way that we’ve operated these air traffic control systems," he says.

While the FAA maintains no decision has been made, it has included the cost savings from ending the Contract Weather Observer program in its budget request for Fiscal Year 2017.

Pompeo says he is confident that it will not be part of the final budget that is passed in the House this year.

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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.

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.