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Trump Budget Proposal Calls For Elimination Of Airport Weather Observers

Deborah Shaar
Meteorologists work at the National Weather Service office just west of Wichita's airport. They rely on data gathered by on-the-ground weather observers.

The people who provide weather observations at Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport could be out of a job if Congress approves President Trump’s budget proposal.

The Federal Aviation Administrationwants to eliminate the Contract Weather Observer program at Eisenhower and other airports to save about $50 million.

Weather observers in Wichita say they provide accurate and timely weather observations that lead to safer and more efficient airport operations.

Six people work at the Wichita office covering shifts 24 hours a day/seven days a week. The weather observers are professionally trained and certified weather observers who provide hourly updates on current conditions to an automated computer system that feeds weather data to the airport and National Weather Service office.

They’ve been serving Wichita’s airport for decades.

Deborah Shaar
Weather Office Manager Matthew Harding

Matthew Harding, manager of the weather office at Eisenhower, says if the Contract Weather Observer program is eliminated, it’ll create a safety issue for the flying public and general aviation.

"When conditions get real bad, whether it’s winter storms or severe thunderstorms, it’s time for us to go to work and the information we provide, saves lives," Harding says. "It keeps planes from being struck by lightning. It keeps planes from getting caught in a downburst and things like that."

The FAA would transition to an automated weather observation system at the airports where it eliminates the Contract Weather Observer program.

Federal Aviation Administration FY 2018 President’s Budget Submission: Operations, Air Traffic Operations: Contract Weather Observer (CWO) Savings (-$50 million) is among several programs FAA plans to streamline to achieve operational cost efficiencies. The FAA has identified multiple airports currently serviced by CWO that have similar traffic, weather and operational complexity profiles to 391 other airports currently serviced by Limited Aviation Weather Reporting Station (LAWRS) controllers. Safety analyses have been conducted to determine where LAWRS –controller provided weather observations can replace CWO contractors. The FAA believes the transition from CWO-provided to LAWRS-controller provided weather observations at these sites will yield a cost savings with no impact on safety.

The agency says nearly 400 airports are currently serviced by that system, and the transition at other airports would have no impact on safety. Harding says in May alone, weather observers made 475 corrections to the readings from automated sensors on thunderstorm activity in Wichita.

"If the FAA had their way, you would fly potentially from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado and not have one human observation," Harding says. "It would be done all by sensors, and that is a huge safety issue especially in the heart of tornado alley.

For the past three years, the FAA has included the elimination of the program in its budget request but ended up extending contracts on a yearly basis.

Harding says he’s not counting on that this year and is appealing to south-central Kansas congressional leaders for help.

His office sent letters to U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts as well as Congressman Ron Estes asking for help in preventing the FAA from eliminating the Contract Weather Observer program in Wichita.

Harding says their current contract expires at the end of September.


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.