Budget cuts may affect safety at Chattanooga Airport

photo Lovell Field and the Chattanooga Municipal Airport are seen in this aerial photo taken in February, 2007.

Federal budget sequestration may result in laying off Chattanooga Airport weather observers who provide data to the air traffic control tower, potentially affecting safety at Lovell Field, an official says.

Charles Starrett, acting supervisor of the federal contract weather office at the airport, said Monday that if personnel there are laid off because of the budget cuts, "that would affect in my opinion...safety at Lovell Field."

"We support the air traffic controller and the pilots coming in on the local weather conditions," he said.

The airport facility, which houses six people on a contract basis, collects weather information, makes sure it's accurate and sends it out to the air traffic control tower at the airport and the National Weather Service. The facility was operating 24 hours a day, but as of Feb. 1 the night shift was eliminated, and it's now running 18 hours daily, Starrett said.

He said new contracts between the FAA and private companies are being held up by the sequester.

Starrett said he hoped to know by the end of this month what may happen to his office.

Paul Barys, chief meteorologist for WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, said if the airport contract weather office isn't manned anymore, that would mean degraded information.

"The pilots coming in for a landing want to know what the weather is going to be," he said.

Barys added that for he and other meteorologists, degraded information will mean a degraded weather forecast.

"We may not get data as accurate," he said.

While there is automated equipment which provides data for Chattanooga Airport, sometimes it goes down or doesn't completely monitor conditions, Starrett and Barys said.

Barys said the equipment doesn't make observations above 12,000 feet, and it doesn't tell what kind of precipitation the Chattanooga area may be experiencing, such as rain or snow.

"That's not good enough for pilots," he said.

Barys said that, for himself, an unmanned office would result in "lousy observations."

"You need observations to get data in for a forecast," he said.

The FAA said in a statement that the Chattanooga Airport is not among 14 weather monitoring offices which are being shut down nationally due to lower passenger traffic numbers.

"We don't know what actions [officials] may take in the future," the FAA said.

Chattanooga Airport spokeswoman Christina Siebold said that Lovell Field is not on list of 14 and has not been notified by the FAA of any potential impact to its local weather station.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.