5
Regional Requirements

Air transportation in Alaska illustrates special regional needs for aviation weather services that the national system does not meet. The FAd should take the lead in responding to these needs.

Some geographic regions of the United States have environmental conditions and user needs that vary significantly from national norms in the geographic density of weather observing sites, topography, availability of surface transportation, and other factors that accentuate the impact of adverse weather on aviation. Accurate forecasts are difficult to generate in areas where the density of observational data is very low or where complex topography generates localized, small-scale weather phenomena. In addition, these factors often reinforce each other. For example, mountainous regions generally have a high level of local weather variability, a low density of weather observing sites, and a sparse or nonexistent road network. In regions that have no surface transportation network, aviation may be the only practical source of food, fuel, and health services; and continuity of air service may be essential to normal life.

Funding constraints limit the resources that federal agencies can devote to meeting the aviation weather needs of regions with special environmental conditions. In addition, the federal system for providing aviation weather services is based on conditions and needs that prevail in much of the nation. As a result, the federal aviation weather system, in some cases, does not fully respond to localized needs for aviation weather services. In fact, nine states fund and operate their own weather observation and dissemination systems to meet local weather needs.

Alaska, more than any other region of the United States, seems to have an aviation environment that illustrates how regional needs can differ from national norms. Therefore, the committee considered the special needs of Alaskan aviation in some detail. However, the committee recognizes that Alaska is not the only region of the United States that has special needs. Variations in aviation weather regional requirements also exist in other areas, such as the islands of Hawaii and remote or mountainous regions in the west and northeast. However, conducting an exhaustive survey of regional requirements was outside the scope of this study. As a result, this report does not contain definitive comments on regional requirements throughout the United States. Rather, the report uses the lessons learned from Alaska to discuss general issues associated with regional variations in environmental conditions and aviation weather user needs.

Much of the information that the committee collected regarding the extent to which federal aviation weather services meet the special needs of Alaska was anecdotal. However, the committee contacted dozens of aviation weather users and providers in every region of the state and discovered a broad consensus among members of the aviation community regarding many aspects of aviation weather services in Alaska. The contents of this chapter and Appendix I (page 96), which includes additional information on Alaskan aviation, are based on the committee's careful consideration of these consensus viewpoints, along with the observations and personal experience of committee members.

Regional Variability in Aviation Safety

One way to assess regional variability in aviation is to examine differences in aviation safety. For example, as illustrated in Figure 5-1, general aviation in Hawaii, the 11 western states that the FAA classifies as mountainous, and Alaska is 27–600 percent more dangerous than in the rest of the country. The situation is most critical for VFR (visual flight rules) flights, which dominate Alaska's commercial and private aviation network. At the time of the committee's visit to Alaska, the 142 most-recent aircraft accidents and incidents in Alaska all involved VFR flights; none occurred during IFR (instrument flight rules) flights.

Some of the increased risk associated with flying in Alaska and other mountainous regions is a natural conse-



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--> 5 Regional Requirements Air transportation in Alaska illustrates special regional needs for aviation weather services that the national system does not meet. The FAd should take the lead in responding to these needs. Some geographic regions of the United States have environmental conditions and user needs that vary significantly from national norms in the geographic density of weather observing sites, topography, availability of surface transportation, and other factors that accentuate the impact of adverse weather on aviation. Accurate forecasts are difficult to generate in areas where the density of observational data is very low or where complex topography generates localized, small-scale weather phenomena. In addition, these factors often reinforce each other. For example, mountainous regions generally have a high level of local weather variability, a low density of weather observing sites, and a sparse or nonexistent road network. In regions that have no surface transportation network, aviation may be the only practical source of food, fuel, and health services; and continuity of air service may be essential to normal life. Funding constraints limit the resources that federal agencies can devote to meeting the aviation weather needs of regions with special environmental conditions. In addition, the federal system for providing aviation weather services is based on conditions and needs that prevail in much of the nation. As a result, the federal aviation weather system, in some cases, does not fully respond to localized needs for aviation weather services. In fact, nine states fund and operate their own weather observation and dissemination systems to meet local weather needs. Alaska, more than any other region of the United States, seems to have an aviation environment that illustrates how regional needs can differ from national norms. Therefore, the committee considered the special needs of Alaskan aviation in some detail. However, the committee recognizes that Alaska is not the only region of the United States that has special needs. Variations in aviation weather regional requirements also exist in other areas, such as the islands of Hawaii and remote or mountainous regions in the west and northeast. However, conducting an exhaustive survey of regional requirements was outside the scope of this study. As a result, this report does not contain definitive comments on regional requirements throughout the United States. Rather, the report uses the lessons learned from Alaska to discuss general issues associated with regional variations in environmental conditions and aviation weather user needs. Much of the information that the committee collected regarding the extent to which federal aviation weather services meet the special needs of Alaska was anecdotal. However, the committee contacted dozens of aviation weather users and providers in every region of the state and discovered a broad consensus among members of the aviation community regarding many aspects of aviation weather services in Alaska. The contents of this chapter and Appendix I (page 96), which includes additional information on Alaskan aviation, are based on the committee's careful consideration of these consensus viewpoints, along with the observations and personal experience of committee members. Regional Variability in Aviation Safety One way to assess regional variability in aviation is to examine differences in aviation safety. For example, as illustrated in Figure 5-1, general aviation in Hawaii, the 11 western states that the FAA classifies as mountainous, and Alaska is 27–600 percent more dangerous than in the rest of the country. The situation is most critical for VFR (visual flight rules) flights, which dominate Alaska's commercial and private aviation network. At the time of the committee's visit to Alaska, the 142 most-recent aircraft accidents and incidents in Alaska all involved VFR flights; none occurred during IFR (instrument flight rules) flights. Some of the increased risk associated with flying in Alaska and other mountainous regions is a natural conse-

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--> Figure 5-1 General aviation accident rates by region of the United States. (Source: GAO, 1993) quence of the unusually harsh terrain and weather. However, as indicated below, there are other factors associated with the air transportation system that seem to contribute to higher accident rates experienced by general aviation pilots in mountainous regions. The Alaskan Example 1980 and 1995 After traveling to Alaska and assessing the ability of existing federal aviation weather systems to satisfy regional user needs, the committee obtained a copy of a study that the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) published in 1980 (NTSB, 1980). That study examined the safety of air taxi operations in Alaska. Comparison of the NTSB study with the current state of affairs in Alaskan aviation indicates that most of the regional issues and concerns noted by this committee have existed for at least the past 15 years, and it does not seem that the FAA, NWS, state of Alaska, and other involved parties have been very successful in addressing them. Based on its own investigation of Alaskan aviation, the committee concluded that each of the following quotes from the 1980 NTSB study are still true today: VFR flight in adverse weather is not uncommon in Alaska.... The risk of losing unrecoverable business often results in pressure on the operator or pilot to fly when good judgment dictates otherwise.... The lack of FAA inspectors permanently on-site at the regional hub airports—FAA inspectors are permanently assigned only in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau—does little to discourage these unwarranted and often illegal flights. There is no one of authority available to discourage or stop those operators or pilots with a "bush mentality" from flying when others choose not to do so. The FAA appears to believe that the most serious safety problem is operator and pilot attitude, and the operators and pilots seem to feel that the FAA, rather than working with them to solve their problems, is "violation" oriented. Another problem that operators and pilots face is inadequate reporting of weather conditions. The problem is twofold and involves both inadequate official weather observations and inadequate communication of the observations. Many operators believe that the official weather reporting system set up by the NWS, using certified weather observers, has deteriorated over the years.... Remote automated weather observations stations were considered by the operators as being inadequate.... To alleviate the communication problem and the lack of a certified weather observer in a particular village, many operators have set up their own weather observation and communications networks.... However, even this private system is not perfect.... Sometimes weather conditions and runway conditions are reported as being significantly better than they are.... Further, the weather observers usually are not trained or certified by the NWS. Thus, the flights based on these weather data are often in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations. This system has been tolerated because of the lack of an alternative system. While a dialogue exists between the FAA and the State DOT/PF [Department of Transportation and Public Facilities], the degree of coordination among the state and federal agencies (particularly the FAA and the NWS) does not appear to be sufficient to develop and implement an adequate aviation infrastructure. The persistence of these factors indicates that, at least in Alaska, some of the accident risk faced by general aviation aircraft in mountainous regions is the direct result of (1) the ineffectiveness of the current regulatory system in countering economic factors that induce air carriers and air taxis to conduct VFR operations without complete weather information and in questionable weather condi-

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--> tions and (2) shortcomings in the official aviation weather system that force VFR pilots to obtain much of their weather information from "black market" sources of questionable reliability. Until the responsible government agencies correct these deficiencies, the flying public in regions such as Alaska will continue to experience a reduced level of safety. Finding: VFR aviation in Alaska plays a role of uniquely vital economic and social significance However, the safety and efficiency of aviation in Alaska is limited by deficiencies in the aviation weather system that have persisted for at least the last 15 years. Improving Regional Services The FAA needs to recognize that aviation in regions such as Alaska is different than in the rest of the country. The committee interviewed dozens of pilots, dispatchers, and other members of the aviation community in Alaska. They generally concurred that the greatest operational need of the Alaskan aviation weather system concerns low-level en route and terminal observations and forecasts, especially at remote airfields and in microclimates such as mountain passes that serve as air routes. They recommended accomplishing this goal by providing more certified weather observers and more automated stations to provide observations where there are no trained observers. (Most users did not want automated systems to take over observing duties at locations where certified weather observers are already stationed because they view human observers as the best source of weather observations.) Additional options for improving observation and dissemination are listed at the end of Appendix I. All have advantages and disadvantages; none, by itself, will fully respond to current needs. Initiating a comprehensive program to improve weather observing and dissemination systems would clearly benefit Alaskan aviation. However, the long-term persistence of many of the shortcomings in the current aviation weather system indicates the presence of a more basic problem: the lack of effective leadership to coordinate the efforts of responsible state and federal government agencies regarding the basic issues afflicting Alaskarl aviation and how to address them. The current system features a variety of interests that tend to work independently—and often at cross purposes—to satisfy their individual needs without an adequate understanding of the overall situation. Users want better service. State officials in Alaska believe responsibility for aviation weather services rests with the federal government. Federal officials take limited action and cite federal regulations, agency policies, limits on their authority, the shortcomings of other federal agencies, budgetary constraints, and decisions made by their predecessors. There is no formal process for identifying what level of service users need, how well the current system meets those needs, or how future changes will alter the level of service. It does not seem that aviation weather service providers are strongly motivated to satisfy user needs, and users do not seem overly concerned with the challenges faced by service providers in trying to accommodate their needs with increasingly limited resources. As long as the interested parties view each other as adversaries, it seems unlikely that significant progress will be achieved. On the other hand, significant progress would be possible if the interested parties worked together to explore both conventional and innovative options for improving regional aviation weather services. The federal government clearly has a key role to play. As described in chapters 2 and 3, the federal government provides many aviation weather services and regulates the use of weather information by pilots, controllers, and dispatchers. In addition, state governments, which tend to be well informed about and responsive to local needs, also have an important role to play in resolving issues concerning available aviation weather services. Recommendation: The FAA, on behalf of the federal government, should take the lead in finding the means to meet special regional needs for aviation weather services. In regions that have special needs, the FAA should establish a team that includes other responsible federal and state government agencies, the local aviation industry, airport operators, pilots, professional organizations, and local communities to identify, assess, and properly respond to these needs. Such a team should address the following areas: The overall aviation weather goals and priorities of the local user community and how they differ from those that drive the national aviation weather system. The role that each of the involved parties should play in meeting these goals. The extent to which it is practical to modify the structure and processes of the national aviation weather system to accommodate special needs of local users. There should be an appropriate balance between the competing goals of (1) maximizing the effectiveness of the regional system, which might call for highly customized services, and (2) minimizing regional variances in the national system so that users are not confused by differing procedures as they travel throughout the country. The optimum methods for allocating available resources. Existing aviation weather systems would

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--> clearly benefit from the allocation of more resources, and it may be appropriate for federal and state agencies to request that their future budgets contain additional funds. First, however, it is imperative to determine if service can be improved by reallocating currently available resources. After addressing the above areas, the FAll should take the lead in assuring that appropriate action is taken. The FAA should also initiate appropriate statutory and regulatory variances to accommodate the agreed-upon plan of action. Recommendation: State governments should play a role in responding to special regional needs for aviation weather services that is second only to that of the federal government. Major Recommendation 5 The FAA should provide the leadership to meet regional needs for aviation weather services with regional solutions. References GAO (General Accounting Office). 1993. Aviation Safety—FAA Can Better Prepaxe General Aviation Pilots for Mountain Flying Risks. Washington, D.C.: GAO. NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). 1980. NTSB Special Study—Air Taxi Safety in Alaska. NTSB-AAS-80-3. Washington, D.C.: NTSB.