FAA Furloughs, Towers, And Weather Observers

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President Barack Obama has signed a bill that will end furloughs of air traffic controllers, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Wednesday said the administration will seek to prevent tower closures, but other areas may see cuts. The president's signature allows the FAA to shift $253 million from other accounts to fund controllers and 149 federal contract towers. The furloughs have already stopped, but the tower closures are still a possibility, beginning June 15, until that issue is formally resolved. Meanwhile, the FAA still needs to make cuts as a result of the sequester, and the agency has plans to eliminate airport weather observers.

According to a plan drafted in March, the FAA will transition weather observation functions from weather observers to air traffic controllers at 121 airports by Sept. 30, with more to follow later. The FAA says the move will save the agency $57 million annually, but the move isn't sitting well with AOPA. Melissa McCaffrey, a senior analyst for AOPA, told the Washington Post that "the number-one cause of general aviation fatalities is weather-related issues." And a 2005 study by the NTSB stated that "over the past 20 years, about two-thirds of all IMC accidents have resulted in at least one fatality," a rate that is three times higher than the fatality rate of all GA accidents. The FAA is not expecting any significant complications.

Currently, weather observers contracted by the FAA augment automated systems at 142 airports nationwide. The FAA says it will require that controllers take training courses, complete five hours of practical training, and must pass a weather-observing certification exam before adding the task to their workload. Critics suggest that a controller's normal workload peaks when weather is at its worst, and that forcing controllers to attend to both tasks during high-workload scenarios could lead to a degradation of service.