FAA Reauthorization Protects Weather Observer Program

July 14, 2016

The United States Congress passed legislation this week to extend the Federal Aviation Administration’s current authorization levels, programs, and the collection of excise taxes through Sept. 30, 2017. Included in the House and Senate negotiated bill was language that prohibits the Administrator from discontinuing contract weather observer program at any airport until Oct. 1, 2017.

Commenting on the passage of the FAA Extension bill, Spokane Airport Board Chairman Max Kuney said, “Protection of the contract weather observer program was our top priority and is a substantial legislative accomplishment that was delivered by Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell and Representative McMorris Rodgers. Due to their efforts, the FAA is prohibited from taking an action that would have resulted in a decline in aviation safety for the more than 3 million passengers that use Spokane International Airport annually. We want to thank Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell and Representative McMorris Rodgers for their help on this very important safety issue.”

The legislation also requires the FAA’s Administrator to submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a report which includes public and stakeholder input— examining the safety risks, hazard effects, and efficiency and operational effects for airports, airlines, and other stakeholders that could result from a loss of contract weather observer service at Spokane International and the 56 other airports targeted for closure by the FAA. The report must detail how the FAA will accurately report rapidly changing severe weather conditions at the airports,  including thunderstorms, lightning, fog, visibility, smoke, dust, haze, cloud layers and ceilings, ice pellets, and freezing rain or drizzle, without contract weather observers. They also must indicate how airports can comply with applicable FAA orders governing weather observations given the current documented limitations of automated surface observing systems. The FAA must also identify the process through which they analyzed the safety hazards associated with the elimination of the contract weather observer program at the 57 locations that includes Spokane. After the President signs the bill into law, the FAA has one year to develop and issue regulations before the third class medical provisions become effective.

Spokane International Airport applauds and credits Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers and their professional staff for their persuasive and personal advocacy to the leadership of the Senate Commerce and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committees, respectively, to ensure the protection of the Contract Weather Observers Program. Without their significant support it is doubtful the language would have been included in the final bill. The 14-month extension also allows for a new Congress and Administration to readdress the longer term and complex issues related to FAA Reauthorization. The added time period also allows the FAA a proper period of time to ensure contract authority for construction projects and the unimpeded flow of grant funding. The funding certainty of the National Air Transportation System is paramount to our country’s national defense and economic vitality. We are very proud of the support Senators Murray and Cantwell, and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers. They listened and continually worked with us as true and committed partners for the betterment of Spokane Airports and all aviation stakeholders.

Following passage of the bill, the following statements were made by Senators Murray and Cantwell and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers:

“I believe we must do everything we can to keep families safe when they travel, which is why the proposal to eliminate Contract Weather Observers at Spokane International Airport is so short-sighted,” said Senator Patty Murray. “I am proud to stand with the Spokane community to fight for this critical safety program in the FAA bill, and I will keep working to prevent these changes from taking place in Spokane or elsewhere to help protect travelers coming in and out of our region.”

Senator Maria Cantwell said, “Spokane weather is too unpredictable to roll the dice with inaccurate or inconsistent information. By keeping Contract Weather Observers in Spokane, we can ensure flight crews have the information they need to operate safely in order to keep travelers to and from Eastern Washington safe.”

“This is a big win for Eastern Washington,” said McMorris Rodgers. “The CWO Program provides vital weather monitoring and alerts for rapidly changing conditions. This provision will help ensure the safety of the flying public, especially at airports like Spokane where weather can be unpredictable and deteriorate quickly. This bill also includes important safety, security, and consumer improvements that will make flying safer, and hopefully, more enjoyable.”

In September 2015, Spokane International Airport management discovered that the FAA contracted human weather observer service, located in the base building of the Air Traffic Control Tower, was included on a list of 57 airports that the FAA had recommended for discontinuation. Nationwide the FAA contracts with human weather observer service providers at 136 airports. Contract Weather Observers (CWOs) provide certified human observers to augment and backup the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS), ensuring the safety, efficiency, and reliability of our nation’s air transportation through accurate and timely weather reports. As professional weather observers they detect and survey weather conditions outside, at ground level from horizon to horizon, and provide real-time weather observations for airports and pilots. CWOs perform weather observations 24/7/365. The ASOS consists of equipment that is installed near the mid-point of the airfield and is operated and maintained by the National Weather Service. The ASOS provides automated weather observations to the Controllers in the Air Traffic Control Tower, and users of the system such as airlines, aero-medical companies, and general aviation. The Airport’s principal concern regarding the contract’s discontinuation is the ASOS’ documented technological limitations; specifically, the detection of freezing rain and drizzle, which has a high prevalence in Spokane from November through March.

Aircraft are restricted from operating in freezing rain and drizzle because of the risk to flight safety. To illustrate the significance of this concern, during a ten day period in December 2015, the CWOs at Spokane International Airport augmented or corrected the ASOS readings over 900 times. In addition, the ASOS does not detect smoke and dust, which is common during Spokane’s late summer months and can have visibility implications. Finally, CWO provide manual backup of critical weather sensors when the ASOS experiences a partial or complete outage. During the November 2015 windstorm, the ASOS was out of service for 11-hours and the CWOs provided continuous weather reports allowing the airport to remain open for commercial air service operations.

The FAA’s solution to discontinuing the human weather observer contract was to transfer these duties to the Air Traffic Controllers through a program titled, “Limited Aviation Reporting Station” (LAWRS). As the name implies, LAWRS’ weather observation training program does not match the education, experience levels, or the singular purpose of the CWOs. In addition, a Controller’s primary responsibility is to separate aircraft and ensure safe flight operations. Performing weather observations would be relegated as a secondary priority. More importantly, Controllers are required to remain in the Tower’s cab, which in Spokane’s case, is 238’ above the ground. Weather observations need to be taken from the ground level as the weather conditions on the surface are often-times far different than those at the elevation of the Tower cab. Spokane’s fog is reflective of our region’s temperature and weather inversions where the air in the atmosphere is often above freezing temperatures but the temperatures on the surface are substantially below 32° F, which causes water vapor (fog) to freeze on contact with objects on the surface. These weather conditions cannot be detected by the ASOS nor observed and properly characterized by a Controller situated in the Tower’s cab.

In January 2015, the FAA convened a Safety Risk Management (SRM) assessment panel, which the Airport participated in, along with other stakeholders including airline representatives, a medevac operator, and the Spokane Airports Tenants Association. The stakeholders expressed strong fact based objections and experience during the process from each of their unique perspectives and experience. Following the SRM they also expressed these safety concerns in writing to the FAA. Because of the concern that this proposed action by the FAA would cause serious negative impacts to air safety, the Airport, on behalf of the stakeholders, requested assistance from Senators Murray and Cantwell and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers to seek a legislative solution based on their Congressional oversight responsibilities of the FAA. 

In addition to the extension of the FAA Reauthorization bill, similar language is included in the Fiscal Year 2017 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies (THUD) Appropriations bill passed by the Unites States Senate on May 19, 2016. The U.S. House of Representatives have not as yet passed their version of the Fiscal Year 2017 THUD Appropriations bill.

In addition, the bill provides for third class medical reforms long sought by the Spokane Airport Tenants Association in particular and nationwide by the general aviation community. Spokane Airport Board Chairman Max Kuney offered additional comments on this positive outcome. “We are also pleased for the support that Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell and Representative McMorris Rodgers gave to making sure that 3rd Class medical reform was enacted, which will encourage sustainment of general aviation, which is the foundation of our aviation system. We had great teamwork with our partners at the Spokane Airports Tenants Association who were leading advocates for this important issue.”