Center Weather Service Units closure debate heats up

June 11, 2009

The FAA is moving ahead with plans to chop 20 Center Weather Service Units (CWSUs) from Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) around the nation. CWSUs consist of on-site meteorologists who advise air traffic controllers of adverse weather in the areas covered by each ARTCC.

“It is important that pilots and controllers have the most accurate and up-to-date weather information,” said Craig Spence, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs, “and the outcome of any proposed change should ensure that service remains.”

CWSUs were implemented in the wake of a 1977 crash of a Southern Airways DC-9 in New Hope, Georgia. The DC-9’s airborne weather radar attenuated—painted a false picture of the storm situation ahead—of its flight path, tricking the crew into thinking that the strongest part of a storm cell was the least threatening. Meteorologists with powerful, non-attenuating ground-based radars could have warned the flight about the hazard.

The NWS’s plan is to consolidate the functions of the 20 existing CWSUs into two locations—one in College Park, Md., and the other in Kansas City, Mo. AOPA opposes the plan, as do the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO). AOPA staffers have been closely following the ongoing debate’s development.

The situation isn’t pretty. Last September, the FAA rejected an NWS proposal that would have preserved the current arrangement. The latest proposal would have a lead forecaster at each of the two consolidated stations. They would report to the regional ARTCCs via instant messaging or telephone. Under the current setup, meteorologists in their own weather units within each ARTCC communicate face-to-face with controllers to help them steer airplanes away from adverse weather.

According to the Washington Post, the FAA says that the current arrangement is based on 1970s technology, and that every ARTCC now has up-to-the-minute weather from a variety of sources, including Doppler radar.