Pilots lack weather data, Hill told

Air transportation officials last week told a House panel that the Federal Aviation Administration's failure to put up-to-the-minute weather data into the hands of pilots is endangering the flying public.

Accidents such as the fatal American Airlines crash that occurred last month during severe thunderstorms in Little Rock, Ark., underscore the need for better weather data in the cockpit, said Capt. Paul McCarthy, executive air safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association International.

"In fact, an airline passenger equipped with a satellite digital cell phone and a laptop computer with a modem can receive real-time weather data that the crew flying the airplane cannot receive in the cockpit," said McCarthy, testifying before the House Aviation Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "The time has come to institute a fundamental change in the approach to solving this problem."

Technology exists to detect and warn of severe weather, but that technology, for a variety of reasons, has not been fielded as widely as it should, witnesses said.

Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said industry and government "must develop the means to package and to disseminate rapidly and economically to flight crews, air traffic controllers and dispatchers the enormous amount of information the technologies provide, to help them make informed decisions." Carriers must equip aircraft with the latest airborne weather-avoidance radar, Hall said.

Part of the FAA's modernization program focuses on developing new weather technologies. These include the Doppler weather radar, the low-level wind shear alert system, the automated surface observing system and the weather system processor, said Steven Brown, associate administrator for air traffic at the FAA. The FAA also is exploring the use of satellite-based and data-link systems to relay current weather information to pilots.

"I am very aware of the importance of weather on aviation safety," Brown testified. "It is our responsibility to provide accurate, timely, comprehensive weather information."

However, the FAA has been slow to field some of these systems and not all airports across the country have access to the newest technology, witnesses said. The Little Rock airport does not have a Doppler weather radar or an airport surveillance radar, for example, and progress on the data-link capability that would send weather data and graphics directly to the cockpit has been slow.

"Unfortunately, many of the potential benefits of getting improved weather data to the cockpit will not be recognized without a continued commitment to implement a data link," said Robert Frenzel, senior vice president for aviation safety and operations at the Air Transport Association of America in his testimony. "New data link efforts are critical elements in making spectrum available for critical uses such as this."

Enhanced weather data is useful only if it gets to the pilot, said Richard Detore, chief operating officer at USAerospace Group. "Data linking of this information to the cockpit in the form of graphics allows the pilot to determine the flight condition along with the safest plan of action," Detore said. "Providing easy-to-interpret weather graphic data into the cockpit will greatly enhance the pilot's ability to fly safely."

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