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January 10, 2017

Weather service employees: Staffing shortages put Philly air passengers in jeopardy

A staffing shortage at aviation forecast centers put flight passengers in Philadelphia and the northeast United States at risk over the Christmas weekend and the first week of 2017, according to the union that represents National Weather Service employees.

According to the National Weather Service Employees Organization, each Center Weather Service Unit (CWSU) is to be staffed by four aviation meteorologists who provide timely, accurate and direct weather guidance to air traffic controllers. These employees, considered "emergency essential" positions, "prepare specialized airspace forecasts and warnings for air traffic and safety," the union said in a Tuesday release.

"These face-to-face, on-the-spot briefings are vital to helping air traffic controllers safely and efficiently route traffic, especially during thunderstorms, snow, and conditions that cause icing on aircrafts' wings," the union said.

But the New York CWSU, which covers North Jersey and a chunk of Central Pennsylvania, only has two employees. There are only three employees at the Washington, D.C. CWSU, which covers Philadelphia, South Jersey, Delaware and large portions of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

Current staffers work in 16-hour shifts, said union spokesperson Lisa Luciani. With the New York forecasting unit operating with half of the its staff, it was forced to close from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Christmas Day. It also was closed form some shifts on Dec. 23-24 and during the first week of January. Such closures force the Washington unit to cover, doubling the center's airspace. In some cases, the Cleveland unit has to pick up some of the slack, according to Luciani.

"No one's getting a day off," Luciani told PhillyVoice. She claimed that one employee worked a shift while suffering from a 104-degree fever.

In December, the union began pleading its case to lawmakers in Washington in response to President-elect Donald Trump's promise to enact a hiring freeze on federal employees, with the exception of the military, public safety and public health officials.

The union circulated a memo to lawmakers explaining that the mission of NWS is public safety, according to the Washington Post.

Luciani told the Post that there were 650 vacant positions across the NWS. She reiterated to PhillyVoice that the explanation for why those positions remain empty seems to change every year, from sequestration to problems with the Workforce Management Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the weather service.

"The NWS is putting the flying public at risk by keeping these positions vacant," said NWSEO Vice President Bill Hopkins in Tuesday's statement, referring to the CWSU positions.

"The degradation of service is threatening the flying public with no plans for an emergency."

A spokesperson for the NWS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.