Aviation Weather:

FAA Is Reevaluating Services at Key Centers; Both FAA and the National Weather Service Need to Better Ensure Product Quality

GAO-08-258: Published: Jan 11, 2008. Publicly Released: Feb 26, 2008.

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The National Weather Service's (NWS) weather products are a vital component of the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) air traffic control system. In addition to providing aviation weather products developed at its own facilities, NWS also provides staff on-site at each of FAA's en route centers. This group of NWS meteorologists--called a center weather service unit--provides air traffic managers with forecasts and briefings on regional conditions including turbulence, icing, and freezing precipitation. GAO agreed to (1) determine the status of NWS's plans for restructuring the offices that provide aviation weather services at FAA's en route centers, (2) identify FAA's requirements and its alternative sources for these services, and (3) evaluate both agencies' current abilities to ensure the consistency and quality of these services. To do so, GAO evaluated agency plans for restructuring offices, defining requirements, and ensuring quality products, and interviewed agency officials.

NWS developed a proposal for restructuring the offices that provide aviation weather services at FAA's en route centers, but these plans are currently on hold. In 2005, FAA requested that NWS restructure its center weather service units by consolidating offices, providing remote services, and reducing personnel costs. In response, NWS conducted a prototype that demonstrated that the services the center weather service units currently provide could be provided remotely by the closest weather forecast office. It subsequently proposed to implement this prototype, but FAA declined this proposal. NWS may reconsider its proposal or other alternative organizational structures as it works to meet FAA's needs in the future. FAA considers its existing requirements governing the center weather service units to be too broad to ensure the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the services, so the agency worked for several months to redefine its requirements. By September 2007, FAA had developed draft requirements that specified the products and services to be performed by meteorologists at the en route center, including conducting weather briefings and developing local icing and turbulence forecasts. FAA finalized a more expansive set of requirements at the end of December 2007, and expects NWS to respond within 120 days on its ability to fulfill the requirements. FAA has stated that, if NWS is unable to meet the requirements, it will consider using alternative sources such as private industry or government laboratories to meet the requirements. Although interagency agreements between NWS and FAA state that both agencies have responsibilities for assuring and controlling the quality of aviation weather observations, neither agency consistently does so for weather products and services produced at the en route centers. Specifically, neither agency has developed performance measures and metrics, regularly evaluated weather service unit performance, or provided feedback to improve these aviation weather products and services. Because of this lack of performance tracking and oversight, NWS cannot demonstrate the quality or value of its services, and FAA cannot ensure the quality of the services it funds. Until both agencies are able to measure and ensure the quality of the aviation weather products at the en route centers, FAA may not be getting the information it needs to effectively manage air traffic.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Further, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to work with NWS to evaluate the services it receives against those measures and metrics.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation. In December 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) established five performance measures for the products and services provided by the National Weather Service's (NWS) center weather service units. In 2009, NWS and FAA began conducting annual site evaluations of the center weather service units. The results of these evaluations were provided as feedback to each center weather service unit.

    Recommendation: Further, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to work with NWS to define performance measures and metrics for aviation weather services provided by meteorologists.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation. In December 2008, FAA established five performance measures for evaluating the products and services provided by the meteorologists in NWS center weather service units.

    Recommendation: While many steps remain in defining the future of aviation weather services at en route centers--including negotiations between FAA and NWS on the provision of these services and FAA's subsequent decision on whether to obtain selected services from alternative sources--there are steps both agencies can take to ensure that the quality of future aviation weather products and services are measured and evaluated. The Secretary of Commerce should direct the Assistant Administrator for the National Weather Service to perform annual evaluations of aviation weather services provided at en route centers and provide feedback to the center weather service units.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Weather Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation. In 2009, the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began conducting annual site evaluations of the work performed by NWS meteorologists at each of the 21 FAA en route centers. The results of these evaluations were provided as feedback to each of the center weather service units.

    Recommendation: While many steps remain in defining the future of aviation weather services at en route centers--including negotiations between FAA and NWS on the provision of these services and FAA's subsequent decision on whether to obtain selected services from alternative sources--there are steps both agencies can take to ensure that the quality of future aviation weather products and services are measured and evaluated. The Secretary of Commerce should direct the Assistant Administrator for the National Weather Service to assist FAA in developing performance measures and metrics for the products and services to be provided by center weather service units.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Weather Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. The National Weather Service (NWS) developed and FAA agreed to a set of five performance measures in order to measure products and services to be provided by center weather service units. The five measures are product participation, format consistency, briefing service provision, organizational service provision, and forecast accuracy.

    Recommendation: Further, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to work with NWS to ensure that results of these evaluations are provided to staff stationed at center weather service units so that they can improve performance, where applicable.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation. In 2009, NWS and FAA began conducting annual site evaluations of the center weather service units. The results of these evaluations were provided as feedback to each center weather service unit.

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