Weather observers at McGhee Tyson Airport said they are concerned about safety for pilots and passengers after their contracts through the FAA were only extended through the end of May.
Budget cuts from sequestration are prompting the FAA to reduce spending. While the FAA said the contract weather observers, or CWO, are budgeted through the fiscal year, which ends September 30th, local observers said they were told the contracts are only good through the next 60 days.
"This impacts everyone that flies. I think they're doing away with safety," said Gary White, who works part-time as a weather observer at McGhee Tyson Airport. "Our job is extremely important because we are one of the main components of air traffic safety."
White said contract weather observers are trained by the National Weather Service. McGhee Tyson observers are contracted through Vero Tech, which sent White a notification that the contract was only extended through May 31st. White said their badges also expire on that date.
"The FAA is being very tight lipped on this," said White. "Our contract has been extended a couple of months. Whether they extend it again, it just depends on how quickly they can get the air traffic controllers trained on the new system they're working on, which is actually going to be a much limited data gathering system compared to what we currently use."
White said the system will not be able to track snowfall totals, detect ice pellets and freezing drizzle, report visibility under a quarter-mile, or get detailed information on thunderstorms.
"I highly respect the work that air traffic controllers do. They have a profession that is extremely time-sensitive and it also requires quite a bit of subject matter expertise. But whenever you have inclement weather that comes in, they have to be at the top of their professional game to get aircraft vectored correctly and taken care of quickly," said White.
Joe Davis, another weather observer, said he sent politicians letters outlining his concerns.
"Across the nation, CWO offices team with similar professional staff. The loss of the experience of this office and those like it across the nation, in my opinion, is negligent at best and bordering on criminal," said Davis.
Davis said McGhee Tyson and other airports will be using air traffic control (ATC) personnel in a Limited Aviation Weather Reporting Station (LAWRS) capacity.
"This is an extremely dangerous undertaking the FAA is instigating. The replacement of experienced, dedicated, veteran weather personnel with novice, inexperienced tower staff who will handle weather duties, limited as collateral duties, ifs foolhardy," said Davis. "This broad sweeping regression of service will endanger the lives of the traveling public."
The FAA would not confirm the weather office is closing.
"The weather observer contract is funded for this fiscal year, which ends September 30," said Kathleen Bergen, with FAA Communications.
According to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), it got word of the closing dates for weather offices at over 100 airports across the country. The list showed McGhee Tyson would have to transition from contract weather observers "no later than June 30th."
"It's not a matter of if they are, it's a matter of when they're going to do it," said White. "Being someone who's been in aviation weather for 23 years, I've seen quite a bit of activity. But I've never seen a decision such as this, a decision that has potentially great ramifications than any other budget cut out there."
"A lapse of seconds is enough for mistakes to occur," said Davis. "At Lexington, Kentucky, in 2006, Comair Flight 5191 crashed killing 47 passengers and two crew members. The air traffic controller gave the correct runway assignment and stepped away to complete other administrative tasks assigned by FAA protocol. The plane crashed taking off from the wrong runway."
"We must be able to provide them that information, especially during inclement weather, as quickly as possible, as accurately as possible. We all have to be at the top of our game during inclement weather," said White. "So if an air traffic controller will be doing both jobs at once, you cannot do both jobs perfectly."
According to the list from PATCO, Tri-Cities Regional Tn/VA is required to make the transition no later than June 15th, and Memphis International by July 31st.