Monday, January 22, 2007

Really dumb: No weather radios allowed in ATC towers

NATCABy current regulation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits the presence of all radios and other personal electronic devices in the cabs of air traffic control towers. The purpose of this regulation is to eliminate potential sources of distraction for controllers while they work. But this is one of those well-intentioned regulations that needs to be amended with at least one exception.

True, we don't want controllers to be yakking on their cell phones, or listening to the Top 40 tunes or the latest talk-radio banter when they should be focused on guiding air traffic. But why does the FAA include dedicated weather radios in that ban?

Late last month the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) issued a press release following a very serious weather incident in Daytona Beach on Christmas Day. At least two tornadoes touched down in the area, one of which caused massive damage to aircraft parked at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. NATCA claims that even though a tornado "roared within 150 yards of the facility," no warning was given to the controllers on duty in the control tower cab and radar room at Daytona Beach International Airport. That press release, dated Dec. 28, 2006, says:
Ironically, just last week, FAA officials briefed Daytona Beach controllers on a security order detailing what to do during hazardous weather conditions. One of the requirements listed was, "Keep a watch on the skies and watch/listen to local weather." The order also states that the responsibility to evacuate the tower rests with the manager/supervisor on duty. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association believes the FAA, in disobeying its own orders for monitoring local weather conditions by banning all methods in which to do so, constitutes negligence on the part of the agency.

"This is a situation that defies all measure of common sense and responsibility," said NATCA Executive Vice President Paul Rinaldi. "The FAA removed the radios as part of its imposed work rules in an effort to punish controllers. But it’s turning out to be a fateful decision that has serious, life or death consequences that clearly the agency foolishly overlooked. We call upon the FAA to immediately put back all radios and life-saving communications equipment."


"Without access to critical severe weather information, the FAA is not only showing a blatant disregard for its employees but also for the flying public," said Kelly Raulerson, NATCA’s Daytona Beach facility representative. "Before this ban went into effect, we used to hear frequent tests of the Emergency Broadcast System on the radio in the tower that we kept on. We certainly needed to hear that familiar alert on Monday. Instead, we were cut off from the world and left in a very vulnerable position."
The point is that the kind of weather radios we are talking about are not for entertainment. They only operate on frequencies that broadcast emergency announcements and serious weather alerts.

Apparently such radios were brought back into the control tower at Daytona two days after the Christmas Day incident, but according to the Aero-News Network (in turn quoting a report in the Orlando Sentinel), the FAA "yanked the radios Friday... leaving controllers wondering just what, exactly, the agency thinks about their safety."
The Sentinel reports a local agency manager put two weather radios in the tower cab December 27, saying the policy banning all radios from work areas was not meant to prohibit weather radios... but the FAA reiterated last week that, yes, weather radios are banned as well, part of a blanket ban on all audio devices that could cause distractions to controllers on duty.

That doesn't make sense to several people who went through the tornado scare in Daytona Beach.

"Anything that provides a source of important information like weather should be made available to controllers," said Marvin Smith, founder of the air-traffic-management degree program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University -- which saw its Daytona Beach campus ripped to shreds by the twister. "I don't care if it is an Ouija board or carrier pigeons. You need to have vital information."

FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere maintains controllers at Daytona Beach International Airport had all the information they needed.

"Controllers have a large amount of weather information available to them in the tower, so the weather radios are not really necessary," Spitaliere said. "They will continue to be banned from the facility."

The agency did acknowledge a regional weather facility in North Florida should have warned controllers of the tornado, but it did not. As for the weather radar system now in place in the Daytona Beach tower, it only shows rain levels... not wind shear activity, or other indicators of a tornadic storm.

Spitaliere said controllers are welcome to have a weather radio... in the break room. "It's not like these controllers are blocked off from the outside world," she said.
Doug Church, national spokesman for NATCA said, "So they don't want controllers to know there's a tornado outside the window? That's absurd."

I agree. The FAA should review the regulation and make an exception for dedicated weather radios that only broadcast safety-critical information from the National Weather Service and the Emergency Alert System.