FAA, NWS consolidation plan faces 'significant challenges'

September 10, 2009

An ongoing effort by the FAA and National Weather Service to consolidate 20 of the 21 center weather service units into two faces significant challenges, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Sept. 9. One of the main challenges is ensuring that services provided to pilots do not degrade as a result of the consolidation. Others include developing a feasible transition schedule that allows stakeholder input and ensuring that the new structure will work in the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System.

“Unless and until these changes are addressed, the proposed restructuring of aviation weather services at en route centers poses new risks and has little chance of success,” the report says.

The FAA and National Weather Service have been working to develop a consolidation plan since 2005 in an attempt to cut costs. The FAA pays about $12 million annually for the service. A National Weather Service estimate predicts that a consolidated system would cost about $9.7 million per year.

“AOPA maintains that pilots and controllers must have the most accurate and up-to-date weather information,” said Craig Spence, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs. “We are committed to working with the FAA and the National Weather Service and exploring alternatives to ensure that any plan that moves forward does not negatively impact service for our members.”

Center weather service units

Center weather service units are composed of three meteorologists and a meteorologist-in-charge who “provide strategic advice and aviation weather forecasts to FAA traffic management personnel.” The weather information from the meteorologists helps controllers when routing pilots around bad weather. The meteorologists provide impact statements, center weather advisories, periodic briefings, and on-demand consultations, as well as disseminate pilot reports and train FAA staff on interpreting weather information.

Currently, 84 people make up the 21 units nationwide, providing services 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Under the most recent consolidation plan, the National Weather Service would cut the number of full-time staff to 50 while increasing service hours to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Staff would be located in two locations: the Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, Mo., which would handle the southern half of the United States, and a new National Centers for Environmental Prediction office that is planned for Washington, D.C. The Washington, D.C., facility would handle the northern half. The center in Alaska will not be part of the consolidation.

Weather instant messaging

Because meteorologists would no longer physically be in the centers to provide in-person, on-demand briefings, the National Weather Service proposes using instant messaging and “online collaboration software.” The National Weather Service also would create two new products to help provide better weather information.

While the National Weather Service has proposed ways to facilitate continuous two-way communications, the GAO reports raises concerns about whether that will be possible if communication between the FAA and National Weather Service does not improve. “If interagency collaboration does not improve, attempting to coordinate the systems and technology of two agencies may prove difficult and further delay the schedule.”

Service for pilots

To help prevent the degradation of service, the FAA and National Weather Service have identified 13 performance measures, but nine of the measures do not have an established baseline.

“It is important to obtain an understanding of the current level of performance in these measures before beginning any efforts to restructure aviation weather services,” the GAO counseled. “Without an understanding of the current level of performance, NWS and FAA will not be able to measure the success or failure of any changes they make to the center weather service unit operations. As a result, any changes to the current structure could degrade aviation operations and safety—and the agencies may not know it.”

Transition period

The National Weather Service proposed to transition to a consolidated structure within three years, including a nine-month time period demonstrating the concept.

“However, NWS may have difficulty in meeting the transition time frames because activities that need to be conducted serially are planned concurrently within the three-year schedule,” the GAO said, explaining that the National Weather Service may need to negotiate with its union before making changes to working conditions.

Working with NextGen

According to the report, neither the FAA nor National Weather Service have aligned the consolidation plan with the Joint Planning and Development Office’s plan for NextGen. NextGen is the government initiative to switch from a radar- to satellite-based air traffic control system. Currently, the role center weather service units will play in NextGen is uncertain.

“Until the agencies ensure that changes to the center weather service units fit within the strategic-level and implementation plans for NextGen, any changes to the current structure could result in wasted efforts and resources,” the report said.

GAO recommendations

The GAO recommended that the FAA and National Weather Service identify baseline performance measures to judge the impact proposed changes would have on service; approve performance measures for the center weather service units; improve interagency collaboration; create requirements for aviation weather services at en route facilities; and ensure the consolidation would work with NextGen.

It also called for the agencies to create a feasible implementation schedule that would allow stakeholder participation, demonstrate that service would not be degraded, and show that it can effectively transition the infrastructure and technologies before moving forward with any changes.