Lawrence J. Krauter, A.A.E., AICP
Wx and the Transition Away from Human Observers
It’s time to start preparing for the Holiday season and the first snows have fallen at some of our member airports already! It’s always fascinating to me to hear the varied reaction about winter season across our Chapter membership. For winter resort airports, it’s the beginning of a very welcome increase in activity and for other airports it’s a secret wish for a mild winter! Other Chapter members that are not involved in day-to-day airport management are looking forward to a snow day here or there to stay home and enjoy the family, or to get away to their favorite ski slope.
As aviation professionals we always seem to be in transition, whether that is getting ready for winter operations or adjusting to some other change in our environment.
We have another transition that is playing out right now with regard to the Contract Weather Observer Program. This is actually a process that has taken place in phases since the 1990’s beginning with the consolidation of Flight Service Stations and National Weather Service offices. For those of us working in the industry at that time, it was when we first heard the term “ASOS” and wondered how effective it would be in replacing the people making weather observations.
Because ASOS technology was new and not proven, in 1994 the FAA convened a team of industry representatives to establish standards for airport surface observation. The industry team developed a service standard model that included four levels of service which were used to determine which NWS ASOS sites would require augmentation by a trained weather observer. In 2001, the NWS transitioned responsibility for augmentation services for ASOS sites to the FAA.
In 2013, in response to Sequester budget cuts, the FAA decided to eliminate the CWO program and transition to Limited Aviation Weather Reporting Stations (LAWRS), which meant that air traffic controllers would make weather observations and augment the ASOS as needed. This was a fast track process that was to take place between May 1st and August 31st. AAAE followed that process and found that many airport operators where unaware of the proposed changes or the potential consequences. Fortunately, when Congress restored funding, the pressure to cancel the CWO program was removed, at least temporarily.
In the summer of 2015, AAAE received information from Contract Weather Observers that the FAA was again planning to reduce the number of CWO sites and transition to LAWRS sites. When AAAE OSPEM Committee and AAAE staff contacted the FAA ATO, we learned that this was correct and that a national SRM panel was held on May 14, 2015, unfortunately without airport industry representation.
Since that time, AAAE has been engaged with the FAA ATO and confirmed that 57 CWO locations may be transitioned to LAWRS sites. In the Northwest Chapter region, airports including Billings, MT; Colorado Springs, CO; Eugene, OR and Spokane, WA are on the list of sites that may lose Contract Weather Observers. The State of Alaska has been exempted from the process.
Why is this important? It has to do with the degradation in the quality of weather observations over the past 25 years based on the downsizing and automation process. For those of us who have been in the business long enough, we recall the substantial amount of weather data that was made available to us along with the experience of the trained human observers who were intimately familiar with the region. Another shift occurred when we switched to METAR coding. And another qualitative shift is about to occur with LAWRS. We should be concerned because weather observation is not a primary task for an air traffic controller. FAA controllers will not leave the tower cab to take an observation. And having just read about the shortage of controllers, one has to consider the potential impact on aviation safety due to increased risk of inaccurate weather observations that are not properly augmented by controllers.
The best example I can think of is the challenges that ASOS has in detecting freezing rain, freezing drizzle and ice pellets. To properly detect the presence of this kind of precipitation a controller would have to leave the tower cab and go outside. We know this is true because we often roll down the windows in our vehicles to ‘feel’ the precipitation when we are on the airfield during snow removal operations. Freezing rain is one of the most dangerous conditions for flight safety, particularly for aircraft with very short holdover times for deicing. If the ASOS misses the mark and a controller does not augment, the consequences could be severe. We also have to think about redundancy in aviation safety. What happens if the ASOS fails?There are other risks such as proper reporting of convective activity that also raises concern.
Transitions are important. In this particular transition from CWO to LAWRS we carry a responsibility to be involved to the greatest possible extent to ensure that aviation safety remains at the highest level. The FAA intends to conduct local SRM panels at each location that did not score high enough to retain CWO services. It’s up to us to be engaged.
For more information on the status of FAA’s process regarding the CWO/LAWRS program or to inquire about the status of an airport please visit the AAAE Operations/Safety/Planning/Emergency Management page at aaae.org.
Thanks for your membership and participation in the Northwest Chapter/AAAE!