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Sequester furloughs in rural Alaska could handicap aviators

Colleen Mondor

In recent months, the impact of sequestration on aviation-related agencies has prompted much concern in Alaska. With our state uniquely dependent on aircraft, proposed closures of air traffic control towers and furloughs of flight service and National Weather Service (NWS) employees looked as though they might have far-reaching impacts across Alaska. Pilots frustrated over the sometimes confusing and conflicting reports about budget reductions must look deep into the multi-layered relationships between the several agencies that contribute to Alaska’s aviation environment.

There are four air traffic control towers in Alaska staffed by FAA employees: Anchorage, Merrill Field, Fairbanks and Juneau. There are 73 Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs) employed at these locations. Additionally, there are four towers staffed by employees with the British-based company SERCO, which is contracted by the FAA to operate in Bethel, King Salmon, Kodiak and Kenai. With the exception of the airspace around Fairbanks, which is controlled by Fairbanks Approach/Departure, all aircraft in the state operating under instrument flight rules (IFR) are controlled by Anchorage Center. There are 103 controllers at Anchorage Center and 24 more at the Anchorage Terminal Radar Approach Control Facilities. Any potential changes in Anchorage staffing affect the entire state.

FAA communications personnel emphasize there was never a threat to Alaska controllers or contract towers due to sequestration. The few towers in Alaska, coupled with the population’s heavy reliance on aviation, made it an unlikely budgetary target. However, air traffic control towers impact only a relatively small percentage of the state’s air traffic. Far more of Alaska relies upon the far-flung flight service stations (FSS).

Located across Alaska from Barrow to Sitka, flight service stations provide a myriad of services. Accessing data from the National Weather Service, they advise pilots of weather conditions along their proposed routes and at their destinations, emphasizing whether IFR or Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions prevail. They also accept pilot reports (PIREPS) of weather encountered in-flight, which are used not only for other pilot briefings but shared with National Weather Service forecasters. Flight service stations also operate remote communications outlets (RCOs), which are sometimes necessary for aircraft to remain in contact with Anchorage Center hundreds of miles away. This is especially vital in those areas of the state where geography inhibits direct radio communications.

14 satellite facilities

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, pilots operating under VFR may file flight plans (IFR flight plans are mandatory) with flight service stations, which provide route information and will trigger a search-and-rescue operation if the plan is not closed upon a pilot’s scheduled arrival. Properly filed flight plans are a fundamental aspect of flight safety and have been responsible for several successful rescues over the years.

The three main flight service stations are in Fairbanks, Juneau and Kenai. There are also 14 satellite facilities across the state, all of which are at airports without air traffic control towers.

On May 10, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, which affected flight service stations nationwide, will allow the FAA to end employee furloughs at least through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

A hiring freeze remains in place, however. Laura Brown, the FAA’s deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, said “there is no anticipated further employee impact on FSS in Alaska.”

National Weather Service furloughs

Perhaps the more significant issue involves National Weather Service personnel in 19 offices across Alaska, who are still scheduled for furloughs this summer. Further, due to hiring freezes, 30 percent of the agency’s positions are open. Because so many aspects of Alaska aviation depend upon National Weather Service analysis of data, the impact of sequestration on the agency staffing demands close scrutiny by pilots.

There are 13 Upper-Air Observation stations (UAOS) in Alaska, where balloons with meteorology equipment are launched into the atmosphere twice a day as part of a cooperative international effort. These sites include St. Paul Island, Yakutat, McGrath and Barrow. The agency also supervises certified weather observers (CWOs) across the state, who are trained and certified to conduct observations reviewed by National Weather Service forecasters. These observers are located in such places such as Puntilla, Cantwell and Haines. Of course, National Weather Service forecasters use radar, satellite date and computer simulations every day, but human observers are a necessary supplement to that data and highly valued by meteorologists of the service’s Alaska Aviation Weather Unit. 

Pilots depend on the work of weather service forecast officers who set Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts (TAS) for departure and arrival information at many uncontrolled airports, and area forecasts, which guide enroute planning. All of this information is generally provided via FSS, who assist pilots in navigating the complexities of the Alaskan climate and area. Through a tightly organized decades-old relationship, both work to provide pilots with up-to-date and accurate weather.

122 automated weather sites 

The primary cause of pilot error accidents in Alaska remains pilots operating under VFR who encounter and continue flying in instrument meteorological conditions. Obtaining adequate weather information and heeding it are the only ways to prevent these crashes from occurring.

Another layer to the multi-agency web of weather data is found in the state’s eight air traffic control towers (and at 13 other sites across the state), where the FAA employs its own certified weather observers. There are also about 122 Automated Weather Observing Sites in Alaska, all of which are accessible by pilots. In those areas, power sources and land rights are a concern but workable parts of the equation.

In the mid-1990s ASOSs were established at many Air Traffic Control Towers and the system of manual weather observation previously conducted by various FAA and National Weather Service personnel was deemed no longer necessary. In those towers with ASOS in place, the FAA often hired certified weather observers as contract employees to supplement the automated data. (There are some 300 smaller towers across the country, which still rely on trained air traffic controllers to supplement the ASOS.) These certified weather observers, like those working for the National Weather Service, are not required to be licensed meteorologists or to possess specialized college degrees. Along with controllers, they may be generally responsible for the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) updated hourly at towers with both weather and airfield information.

The FAA moved to phase out the certified weather observer tower program this year and replace them with trained controllers -- but in the face of widespread disapproval has “made the determination that it will extend its weather observer contracts through the end of this fiscal year to allow for more stakeholder input on how to proceed going forward.”

Conversely, the National Weather Service would like to expand its weather gathering capability in Alaska to help pilots to obtain more information. The Alaska Aviation Weather Unit is working with the regional representative of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to find those overlooked locations that are most frustrating to forecasters and pilots. Increased funding remains a necessary part of any plan to install more ASOSs or hire more certified weather observers, but technology does exist to place equipment in such remote sites as Rainy and Merrill passes. In those areas, power sources and land rights are a concern.

AOPA Alaska Representative Tom George is working to preserve the existing aviation environment in the state. As he explains:

Given Alaskan’s reliance on aviation to provide groceries, mail and medevac service to many remote communities, accurate and complete weather observations are very important not just to pilots, but to rural residents across the state.  In comparison to the rest of the country Alaska would need 2.6 times as many aviation weather observations as we have today to equal the density of the Lower 48 stations.  While we are sensitive to the need to reduce the cost of government, carefully considered plans and perhaps new innovation is needed to preserve access by air, and to support aviation safety.

The NWS furloughs begin in July and will continue through the summer. Pilots should make their voices heard on concerns about maintaining the highest level of safety in Alaska’s skies. 

Locations of FSS satellite stations: Barrow, Cold Bay, Deadhorse, Dillingham, Homer, Illiamna, Ketchikan, Kotzebue, McGrath, Nome, Northway, Palmer, Sitka, Talkeetna

Locations of Upper Air Observing Stations: St. Paul Island, Cold Bay, King Salmon, Kodiak, Yakutat, Annette Island, Anchorage, McGrath, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, Bethel, Fairbanks.

FAA Certified Weather Observers: King Salmon, Anchorage, Bethel, Allen Army Airfield, Bettles, Cordova, Unalaska, Fairbanks, Ft Yukon, Gulkana, Illiamna, Juneau, Merrill Field, Northway, Petersburg, Deadhorse, Sand Point, Tanana, Valdez, Wrangell.

For a list of all weather reporting sites (automated and “Apaid” or live) across the state see the NWS Alaska Region Headquarters site

Colleen Mondor is a former dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based air carrier. Her book, The Map Of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska, details her years working in the Alaska aviation industry. You can contact her at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.