Thursday, March 15, 2007

NATCA to FAA: Weather radios in towers, please

NATCALast September the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned all personal electronic devices -- including radios -- from the cabs of air traffic control towers in the United States. The purpose of this regulation was to eliminate potential forms of distractions to controllers as they work.

While that may sound logical on the surface, in fact it is too broad a prohibition. It makes no exception for devices like weather radios, which controllers could use to receive the latest severe weather and tornado warnings to fill in the gaps left by radar equipment that only detects precipitation. This is a potentially serious safety issue, as I pointed out in a post I wrote in this blog in January of this year.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is rightfully up in arms about this issue. They have repeatedly called upon the FAA to rescind the ban on weather radios in the towers.

Their most recent effort to call attention to this issue came yesterday. In a media release, NATCA explains:
The agency initially exempted weather radios from the ban, even confirming for reporters explicitly last December that one of its own managers installed a weather radio at the control tower at Daytona Beach International Airport just two days after a Christmas Day tornado roared within 150 yards of the tower and carved a destructive path through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But the FAA did an about-face in late January, declaring the weather radios officially banned and yanking the one out of Daytona Beach Tower, again putting the safety of controllers and the flying public at risk.

"It's really just amazing to me that we have to even continue to ask this from an agency that says it is committed to aviation safety. It's such a no-brainer," National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Patrick Forrey said. "Don't believe it when the FAA tells you we have every possible weather tool at our fingertips. There is no tool available to tower controllers that can detect a tornado within a thunderstorm. We must have either a weather radio or access to the Emergency Alert System to get the latest weather bulletins."

Forrey added that while a select few towers, like New York-JFK, have advanced equipment that can identify wind shear, it is not like Doppler technology that television meteorologists have which shows rotations within thunderstorm supercells that are indicative of tornadoes and also predict the path of those storms. "The FAA can supply access to low-cost alternatives to enhance situation awareness," Forrey said. "We need weather radios in the towers so we at least have a fighting chance to keep up with the latest weather information given to the public from these meteorologists who are tracking severe storms."
So what's the problem, FAA? The kind of weather radios we are talking about here are not for entertainment. They only operate on frequencies that broadcast emergency announcements and serious weather alerts.

Why can't an exception be made to the 'no personal electronic devices in the ATC cab' rule that allows for dedicated weather radios that only broadcast safety-critical information from the National Weather Service and the Emergency Alert System?