When electronic sensors failed to detect fast-hitting freezing rain Jan. 5, a United Airlines jetliner loaded with 173 passengers slid off the taxiway.
Weather observers on the ground, however, quickly spread the word about icing dangers and marshaled crews to de-ice the runway in time to allow a safe landing for the next incoming jet.
No one was hurt, but it’s just that sort of safety scenario that local Spokane International Airport officials say will be lost if the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to cut such weather observation jobs is adopted.
Spokane is one of 57 out of 136 airports nationwide proposed for budget cuts to eliminate human observers who oversee automated weather sensors. Spokane is 57th on the list.
The weather reports are critical for safe aviation because the automated equipment has major shortcomings, said airport CEO Larry Krauter, who has enlisted the help of the state’s congressional delegation to spare the jobs.
Krauter said he first learned about the proposed cuts when he was contacted by an airport official in Rochester, New York, which is also on the list.
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.
He called the FAA’s budget-cutting approach “discriminatory and capricious,” notwithstanding the fact that it is “terrible public policy.”
FAA officials said in a statement that they considered the review a routine examination of the agency’s spending and that more than 390 airports operate without contract weather observers. Instead, they use air traffic controllers to provide human weather observations.
For now, the cuts are on hold, the FAA said.
“We are coordinating the next steps internally. No decisions have been made at any facilities about the contract weather observer program,” the statement said.
The seven weather observers, employed under a contract with an Iowa company, supplement the automated equipment at a cost of about $500,000 a year in Spokane.
That is pocket change in the FAA’s annual budget of $16 billion, Krauter said.
Krauter described a draft report supporting the cut as “incomplete at best.”
He said FAA officials stacked the deck so they could achieve their desired outcome.
The automated surface observation system, known as ASOS, is not effective at reading cloud cover, approaching thunderstorms, freezing rain, sudden winds or other fast-moving weather, said Dave Law, who manages the weather observers.
The automated system does not read weather conditions from side to side, but only through an upward part of the sky about 50 feet in diameter.
The human weather staff, known as “contract weather observers,” overrode the automated system 5,000 times last year at SIA.
In 10 days in December, the human observers in Spokane overrode the automated system 900 times.
Those overrides gave pilots and controllers a more accurate picture of real-time weather, Law said.
FAA acknowledged that human observations are important, but the agency officials think that air traffic control staff in the airport tower can do that under their budget-cutting proposal, Krauter said.
Law and Krauter said that idea is foolish. The controllers are 238 feet above the ground and cannot leave the tower to check on the weather outdoors, including the possibility of freezing rain.
Plus, asking an air traffic controller to monitor the weather is problematic. “That’s a huge distraction for a controller,” Krauter said.
Fairchild Air Force Base has maintained its human weather observers after experimenting with a fully automated system a few years ago. The experiment did not work, Law said.
Fairchild has two ASOS installations while SIA has just one located between its two main runways.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has indicated the FAA is reviewing the findings of panels that examined each airport slated for cuts.
The review by the FAA in Spokane involved five people, including three FAA officials, one Spokane airport official and one representative of the airlines. All of the votes on the panel findings were 3-2, with the FAA officials carrying the majority, Krauter said. The air traffic controllers were not part of the study.
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