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FAA may eliminate contract weather observer stations at Yeager, other airports

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Yeager Airport's six-person contract weather observer station is among 109 similar operations nationwide apparently being considered for closure by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The station, housed in the general aviation terminal at Yeager, is the only one of its kind operating in West Virginia. Its staff of certified meteorological technicians produces hourly weather reports used by air traffic controllers, and provides climate data for the National Weather Service's Charleston Forecast Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"My understanding is that the FAA is saying the closure of operations like ours is part of a cost-cutting contingency plan being considered regardless of the sequester," said Brian Broussard, supervisor of Charleston's contract weather observer station.

"If this were to happen, it would create a reduction to the overall safety of air service and also a represent a degradation in the climate data that the National Weather Service uses in many of the products they are responsible for, including the Terminal Area Forecast."

The Terminal Area Forecast is the official forecast for pilots who use airports in the FAA system.

Broussard said the FAA plan calls for converting contract weather observation stations like the one at Yeager into Limited Aviation Weather Reporting Stations that rely on automated equipment monitored by air traffic controllers. The six-person weather observer crew at Yeager, and their colleagues at 108 other U.S. airports, would be furloughed.

Weather reports generated by the airport's Automated Surface Observing System often require editing and augmenting by trained observers, according to Broussard.

"For instance, at Yeager, it only takes a small amount of fog for the sensors to interpret it as severe fog, which could needlessly and erroneously cause the system to report airport-closing conditions," he said. The system also doesn't differentiate between different types of precipitation, including drizzle, freezing rain, sleet and snow.

During periods of severe weather, observers at the Charleston contract station issue real-time reports as high winds, thunderstorms, lightning strikes and hailstorms occur, and again once the threats have passed, Broussard said. When power outages disable the automated system, the station's meteorological technicians manually calculate and record weather data.

"If two consecutive scheduled hourly reports are not reported during a power outage, the Terminal Air Forecast for the airport is cancelled," which could cause serious delays, Broussard said.

Last year, Yeager's crew of weather observers produced more than 500 manual reports. After the late-June derecho swept through the state, "this staff manned the station with all power out in 100-degree weather to ensure that the air traffic controllers and the National Weather Service meteorologists had current weather reports," Broussard said.

Mike Forman, the union representative at the Charleston Air Traffic Control tower, said if the closure plan moves forward, training and tests could be expected soon to familiarize controllers with the policies and procedures needed to operate a Limited Aviation Weather Reporting System.

Having to assume many of the duties previously performed by the contract observers "will be an added distraction," he said. "It was never my intent to become a weatherman. You can teach a miner how to fix a sink, but that doesn't make him a plumber. And aviation weather is a cornerstone of to the overall safety of the National Airspace System."

Forman added that if the goal of the closure plan is to boost the economy, "it's hard for me to see how putting middle class workers across the country, including six here locally, out of work with no prospects of getting a similar job in their profession is going to help."

When asked when or whether the contingency plan phasing out the contract weather observer stations and Yeager and other U.S. airports would be implemented, a spokeswoman with the  FAA regional office in New York responded only that "the FAA plans to fund Contract Weather Observers to the end this fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2013."

In another development, the FAA announced Friday that the closure of 149 contract air towers across the nation, including towers at the airports serving Parkersburg, Lewisburg and Wheeling, will be postponed until June 15.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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