Aviation Weather:

FAA and the National Weather Service Are Considering Plans to Consolidate Weather Service Offices, but Face Significant Challenges

GAO-09-761: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2009.

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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 on-site staff at each of FAA's en route centers--the facilities that control high-altitude flight outside the airport tower and terminal areas. Over the last few years, FAA and NWS have been exploring options for enhancing the efficiency of the aviation weather services provided at en route centers. GAO agreed to (1) determine the status and plans of efforts to restructure the center weather service units, (2) evaluate efforts to establish a baseline of the current performance provided by these units, and (3) evaluate challenges to restructuring them. To do so, GAO evaluated agency plans for the restructuring and for establishing performance measures. GAO also compared agency efforts to leading practices and interviewed agency officials.

NWS and FAA are considering plans to restructure the way aviation weather services are provided at en route centers, but it is not yet clear whether and how these changes will be implemented. In 2005, FAA requested that NWS restructure its services by consolidating operations to a smaller number of sites, reducing personnel costs, and providing services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. NWS developed two successive proposals, both of which were rejected by FAA--most recently because the costs were too high. FAA subsequently requested that NWS develop another proposal by late December 2008. In response, NWS developed a third proposal that involves consolidating 20 of 21 existing center weather service units into two locations. NWS sent this proposal to FAA in early June 2009. FAA responded to NWS in August 2009 by requesting more information regarding NWS's proposal. In response to GAO's prior concerns that NWS and FAA lacked performance measures and a baseline of current performance, the agencies have agreed on five measures and NWS has proposed eight others. In addition, the agencies initiated efforts to establish a performance baseline for 4 of 13 potential performance measures. However, the agencies have not established baseline performance for the other 9 measures. NWS officials stated they are not collecting baseline information on the 9 measures for a variety of reasons, including that some of the measures have not yet been approved by FAA, and that selected measures involve products that have not yet been developed. While 4 of the 9 measures are tied to new products or services that are to be developed if NWS's latest restructuring proposal is accepted, the other 5 could be measured in the current operational environment. For example, both accuracy and customer satisfaction measures are applicable to current operations. It is important to obtain an understanding of the current level of performance in these measures before beginning any efforts to restructure aviation weather services. Without an understanding of the current level of performance, NWS and FAA may not be able to measure the success or failure of changes they make to the center weather service unit operations. As a result, changes to the current structure could degrade aviation operations and safety--and the agencies may not know it. NWS and FAA face challenges in their efforts to improve the current aviation weather structure. These include challenges associated with (1) interagency collaboration, (2) defining FAA's requirements, and (3) aligning any changes with the Next Generation Air Transportation System--a long-term initiative to increase the efficiency of the national airspace system. If the restructuring proposal is accepted, the agencies face three additional challenges in implementing it: (1) developing a feasible schedule that includes adequate time for stakeholder involvement, (2) undertaking a comprehensive demonstration to ensure no services are degraded, and (3) effectively reconfiguring the infrastructure and technologies. Unless and until these challenges are addressed, the proposed restructuring of aviation weather services at en route centers poses new risks and has little chance of success.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Two of the five measures are no longer applicable because they were based on a previous National Weather Service (NWS) proposal that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not accept. Three of the measures (forecast accuracy, customer satisfaction, and training completion) are still relevant. Of the three measures, NWS has established a baseline for two measures and has taken steps on the third. Specifically, NWS has established a baseline for its customer satisfaction and forecast accuracy measures.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to immediately identify the current level of performance for the five potential measures that could be identified under current operations (forecast accuracy, customer satisfaction, service delivery conformity, timeliness of on-demand services, and training completion) so that there will be a baseline from which to measure the impact of any proposed operational changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Two of the five measures are no longer applicable because they were based on a previous National Weather Service (NWS) proposal that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not accept. Three of the measures (forecast accuracy, customer satisfaction, and training completion) are still relevant. Of the three measures, NWS has established a baseline for two measures and has taken steps on the third. Specifically, NWS has established a baseline for its customer satisfaction and forecast accuracy measures.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to immediately identify the current level of performance for the five potential measures that could be identified under current operations (forecast accuracy, customer satisfaction, service delivery conformity, timeliness of on-demand services, and training completion) so that there will be a baseline from which to measure the impact of any proposed operational changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

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

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to establish and approve a set of performance measures for the center weather service units.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

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

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to establish and approve a set of performance measures for the center weather service units.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation. In an interagency agreement, dated October 2010, NWS and FAA defined a common outcome for its center weather service units. The agencies further solidified the common outcome by creating a joint FAA-NWS Traffic Flow Management Weather Requirements working group that established joint strategies for aviation weather as a whole (including center weather service units), as well as agreeing upon each agency's responsibilities.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to improve interagency collaboration by defining a common outcome, establishing joint strategies to achieve the outcome, and agreeing upon each agency's responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation. In an interagency agreement, dated October 2010, NWS and FAA defined a common outcome for its center weather service units. The agencies further solidified the common outcome by creating a joint FAA-NWS Traffic Flow Management Weather Requirements working group that established joint strategies for aviation weather as a whole (but including center weather service units), as well as agreeing upon each agency's responsibilities.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to improve interagency collaboration by defining a common outcome, establishing joint strategies to achieve the outcome, and agreeing upon each agency's responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. In July 2011, as part of a joint FAA/NWS working group, FAA and NWS established and finalized near term requirements for traffic flow management aviation weather, including en route centers.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to establish and finalize requirements for aviation weather services at en route centers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. In July 2011, as part of a joint FAA/NWS working group, FAA and NWS established and finalized near term requirements for traffic flow management aviation weather, including en route centers.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to establish and finalize requirements for aviation weather services at en route centers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. In July 2010, the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed to create a joint working group to develop requirements for aviation weather services and an implementation plan that extends through 2015. This team subsequently created a joint project plan roadmap to carry out the two agencies' agreements. This document details the continuing collaborations with the Joint Planning and Development Office, as well as NWS and FAA NextGen program offices, to ensure successful implementation with NextGen.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to ensure that any proposed organizational changes are aligned with NextGen initiatives by seeking a review by the Joint Program Development Office responsible for developing the NextGen vision.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  10. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with the recommendation but did not implement it because the National Weather Service (NWS) and FAA are not proceeding with any operational changes to their aviation weather operations.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to, before moving forward with any proposed operational changes, address implementation challenges by (1) developing a feasible schedule that includes adequate time for stakeholder involvement, (2) undertaking a comprehensive demonstration to ensure no services are degraded, and (3) effectively transitioning the infrastructure and technologies to the new consolidated structure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  11. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with the recommendation but did not implement it because the National Weather Service (NWS) and FAA are not proceeding with any operational changes to their aviation weather operations.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to, before moving forward with any proposed operational changes, address implementation challenges by (1) developing a feasible schedule that includes adequate time for stakeholder involvement, (2) undertaking a comprehensive demonstration to ensure no services are degraded, and (3) effectively transitioning the infrastructure and technologies to the new consolidated structure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  12. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. In July 2010, the National Weather Service (NWS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agreed to create a joint working group to develop requirements for aviation weather services and an implementation plan that extends through 2015. This team subsequently created a joint project plan roadmap to carry out the two agencies' agreements. This document details the continuing collaborations with the Joint Planning and Development Office, as well as NWS and FAA NextGen program offices, to ensure successful implementation with NextGen.

    Recommendation: To improve the aviation weather products and services provided at FAA's en route centers, the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation should direct the NWS and FAA administrators, respectively, to ensure that any proposed organizational changes are aligned with NextGen initiatives by seeking a review by the Joint Program Development Office responsible for developing the NextGen vision.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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