Status of federal contract for airport weather observers up in the air

Hank Hayes • Apr 16, 2013 at 6:07 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The human touch in aviation weather is up in the air at Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

Contract weather observers serve TCRA as they do at airports around the country.

They glean information from sophisticated automated weather stations and eyeball sky conditions, although they are not necessarily meteorologists.

The federal contract for airport weather observers expired on Sept. 30, 2012, but the Federal Aviation Administration extended the contract to May 31.

Following an inquiry, FAA didn’t say what’s going to happen to the contract after the end of May.

“The Federal Aviation Administration will ensure that weather information is available for pilots using Tri-Cities Regional Airport,” FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen wrote in an email.

Bergen pointed out the contract expiration occurred at the end of the last fiscal year and before the March 1 federal sequester — automatic discretionary spending cuts approved by Congress in 2011.

Bergen didn’t have the number of contract weather observers working at TCRA.

While up-to-date weather information is always a safety concern, TCRA’s main general aviation operator didn’t think pilots or passengers would be affected if weather observers weren’t at the airport.

“I feel like the pilots would be able to get their information from the National Weather Service. ... I feel like most of the pilots also get (weather) information off other websites,” said Pam Phillips, owner and general manager at Tri-City Aviation. “Years ago, pilots would borrow our courtesy car and drive to the (FAA) tower and check the weather. ... Since technology has come so far, we haven’t had anyone go over there in years.”

Still, FAA is under continuing scrutiny amid federal spending cuts. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Aviation Safety: FAA’s Progress on Key Safety Initiatives” to examine sequestration’s effects on FAA.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which lobbies Congress on behalf of the general aviation community, also has kept a close eye on tower issues at smaller airports, where everything from single-engine airplanes to business jets take off.

AOPA President and CEO Craig L. Fuller warns any decision to close control towers and scale back aviation services constitutes a risk to aviation safety.

“The White House budget office has forced troubling, and possibly dangerous, cuts on the FAA,” Fuller said in an AOPA release last month. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Rational savings can be found, and we are ready to work with the FAA and the Department of Transportation to build workable solutions. But closing more than 200 air traffic control towers, derailing certification, and allowing our navigational aid system to deteriorate just doesn’t make sense.”

For more about FAA go to www.faa.gov.

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