State resolution would push feds to fix rural Alaska aviation weather stations

a weather station
An automated weather station in Fairbanks (From NWS Fairbanks)

Persistent outages of weather observation stations across Alaska have caused problems for rural communities, aviators and climatologists for years. Now Alaska lawmakers are hoping to spur the federal government to do something about it.

A joint resolution currently working through the state Legislature would urge Congress to address Automated Weather Observing System outages persistently happening across the state. The legislation was heard for the first time on Tuesday by the Senate Community and Regional Affairs committee.

The owner of Alaska Air Transit, Daniel Owen, told legislators of a recent weather station outage his company experienced when flying a charter for the Lower Yukon School District.

“Our job was to go out to Scammon Bay and Hooper Bay and pick up some school kids. Neither one of the AWOS was functioning 100%. The Scammon Bay AWOS was completely out of service,” Owen explained.

According to Owen the Scammon Bay station has been out of service since March 29 and isn’t scheduled for maintenance until May.

AWOS weather stations collect data on weather conditions, wind direction and speed, along with other critical information needed for pilots, such as cloud cover, visibility, temperature and air pressure. If a station in an Alaska community is not reporting weather data, and another federally approved weather source is not available, then a commercial pilot cannot legally or safely fly there according to FAA’s Part 135 regulations.

Under the FAA’s Instrument Flight Rules, during poor weather pilots must be able to access weather data in a rural community before landing there. IFR is considered the safest way of flying compared to Visual Flight Rules, although Owen and others told legislators that Alaska pilots frequently use VFR under poor weather conditions like low cloud ceilings and low visibility.

But Grant Aviation’s Daniel Knesek, a board member of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, said there are workarounds that pilots use sometimes when an AWOS is not transmitting.

“There’s times when we have to provide a radio to the village agent in a village so we can call them and they can play the weather reporting over the radio, onto a phone call, just so we can receive the weather briefing in order to be legal to fly IFR, to fly to that destination,” Knesek said.

According to Knesek, Grant Aviation serves over 60 communities in Alaska and about 30% of them have an AWOS or other weather reporting system. He says there is still a lack of aviation infrastructure in Alaska, compared to the Lower 48, which impacts food shipments, medical supplies and delivery of vital services in rural areas.

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A map of all AWOS stations in Alaska, including eight new ones added by the FAA between 2022 and end of 2024. (From FAA)

The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the vast majority of weather stations and aviation related infrastructure in the state. The agency operates and maintains over 100 stations across Alaska, while the National Weather Service is in charge of about 40 stations. That includes the station in Kodiak.

But according to FAA data, on an average day last year about one out of every three weather stations was experiencing some type of outage.

Advocates agree that AWOS outages are a multi-layered issue. Given the lack of infrastructure in Alaska, what does exist is antiquated, using mainly copper wire to transmit the data from AWOS stations. Station maintenance can also take months.

“In the part of the United States where the environment is changing most rapidly, we just can’t afford to have this loss of information,” said Alaska-based climatologist Rick Thoman.

He said depending on the type of outage, an AWOS station could fail to transmit data to the web but could still be collecting data, or it could be offline altogether.

“If that data is not online, then it’s gone. We can’t get it. That information cannot be ingested into, say, weather models, because it is not online,” he explained.

The irony is that sometimes the FAA maintenance worker tasked with fixing a community’s AWOS issue can’t fly in due to the local weather station being offline, prolonging the gap in service.

Thoman said various stations have gone months, or even a year or more, without transmitting vital weather data. The AWOS in the Yukon Kuskokwim-Delta community of Hooper Bay for example, has not transmitted data since ex-Typhoon Merbok devastated Western Alaska in September 2022.

“Western Alaska and Southwest Alaska have been particularly hard hit by this outage. On St. Lawrence Island, the FAA weather station at Gambell has not reported reliably since late 2022. It was working after Merbok but went offline then,” Thoman said.

The FAA noted this was an issue years ago and prioritized AWOS in its Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative. That plan includes actionable steps the administration is working on through the end of the 2024 fiscal year. The FAA’s Alaska Aviation Safety Initiative included setting up eight new AWOS stations in various communities across rural Alaska, including one in the Aleutian community of Perryville and a few in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Improving aviation safety has also been a priority of Alaska’s congressional delegation, given that as of 2019, the state has the highest rate of aviation fatalities in the country. There’s currently legislation working its way through the U.S. Senate to address some of these issues.

Congress recently approved another stopgap measure which is an extension for the FAA to continue operating until May 10 or whenever the reauthorization act is passed. Advocates hope the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023-2024 will include language forcing the FAA to address AWOS outages in Alaska.

Sen. Dan Sullivan recently told Alaska’s News Source he urged the FAA to focus more on Alaska following the National Transportation Safety Board reporting in 2019 that Alaska has the highest rate of aviation fatalities in the country.

“So they have, at my urging, initiated a program that is focused exclusively on Alaska aviation safety and what we need to do more, in terms of bringing in infrastructure, and making sure we have the assets that the Lower 48 states have,” Sullivan said.

As for the joint resolution currently being heard in the state capitol, it is scheduled for another hearing before the Senate Community and Regional Affairs committee on Tuesday.

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