The FAA is looking, as always, for ways to trim spending. Rumor has it that the feds may not extend funding for the two DUAT online weather and flight planning services after the end of the government’s fiscal year this September. I think that would be a huge mistake.
The two online briefing services for pilots–DUAT and DUATS–were rolled out early in the internet era. They were among the first easily available sources for complete weather data, notams, TFRs and flight plan filing. Initially the service was text only, but eventually graphics were added. All you needed to use the service is a current medical certificate.
Since the DUAT services were established a whole host of online and mobile device apps have been invented. I can’t possibly keep track of how many weather and flight planning apps and services there are, and what they can all do, and the number keeps growing. In many respects the apps are easier to use and more graphically driven then the DUAT services.
What most pilots don’t know is that nearly all of the new flight planning apps and services actually use one of the DUATs to get their information and file flight plans. The FAA has been cautious about allowing online services to connect directly to the ATC computer system to input flight plans. It’s easy to see why. Can you imagine what a hacker, or even a well meaning bumbler, could do to the ATC system if they were allowed to feed corrupted or malware files directly into the ATC Center computers? It would be a disaster for air travel.
So DUATs, and just a handful of other fully vetted operations, are permitted direct access to the FAA system. Though you may no longer use one of the DUAT providers, you are very likely to be using their FAA connections when you use one of the very capable apps that have become so popular.
From what I can tell the entire DUAT budget is under $10 million. And it’s a pay per contact service so the FAA pays only when pilots use it. This is chicken feed in any federal government budget, and one of the best values the FAA has.
DUAT, both directly and indirectly by linking other providers to the FAA, is doing so much for so little, but the big bucks spent on weather are still going into the telephone briefing. An online weather briefing or flight plan filing costs pennies, but a phone briefing costs many dollars. The worst part is that a phone briefing, no matter how long it takes, can never deliver graphics to show the boundaries of airmets, or sigmets, or radar pictures or fronts and lows and highs, or critical TFRs. And the world’s longest phone briefing could only give a pilot a tiny fraction of the total information available, no matter how fast the pilot scribbles as the briefer reads.
Briefers are not allowed to actually interpret the weather information they give to pilots. In the old days when FSS staff were located on airports, had windows to look out, and often spent many years at the same station, they did have knowledge and experience about local conditions and could add local knowledge to the briefing. Those days are gone.
What the phone briefer can do now is sort through the huge stack of data and prioritize giving the pilot on the phone the most critical and important data more quickly. But now software can do that, too. Almost daily the weather apps and online sites get better at showing what matters most first, and presenting the information in an easy to understand and interpret format.
Some pilots still find it comforting to hear a human voice read them the weather information, and intone those “VFR not recommended” words, or express serious concern when reading an airmet or sigmet, or terminal forecast for low conditions. But most of us don’t. We want the information quickly, completely, and want to read it and see it for ourselves.
Ending phone briefings would save more than 10 times the cost of DUAT services and online briefings. Complete weather and flight planning information is available from so many outlets I think it’s time to cut the phone cord.
But what about inflight weather requests? Without briefers who would read weather, notams, TFR locations and such to a pilot in flight? That is an issue, but the solution is already being implemented through ADS-B FIS (flight information service). ADS-B sends up complete weather and flight information continuously from a national network of ground stations that is nearly complete. Portable ADS-B receivers cost well under a grand, there is no subscription fee, and FIS can show pilots radar pictures, location of TFRs and weather alerts, and other graphics on mobile electronic devices, notably the iPad.
The FSI data sent up continuously is so much better than anything an FSS person can read over the radio because you can see the information graphically. And on most systems you can see the actual location of your airplane relative to the TFR, or radar returns, or other weather hazard. No voice report can do that.
In aviation we are of necessity slow to adapt new technology. We want proven tech, not new tech because the stakes are high. But electronic information technology is now well proven, is being used daily at the highest levels of aviation, and can do so much more than any phone or radio voice briefing it’s time to move ahead. Let’s hang up the weather phone.