It appears that East Hampton Airport will finally be getting a piece of safety equipment this year that has long been common at airports that are far less busy.
A device that automatically and continuously senses and broadcasts weather conditions to pilots, it has been in use for decades at many small airports across the country but missing from East Hampton because of political wrangling over the airport and technical tie-ups with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Included in the nearly $7 million capital budget the East Hampton Town Board approved last week is $41,000 for electrical wiring to support an Automatic Weather Observing System, or AWOS, that can tell a pilot what the current weather conditions at the airport are, including temperature, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, visibility range, and an estimate of cloud height.
East Hampton is the only public airport on Long Island that does not have automatic weather reporting. Why it doesn't have it is a question with a history.
"Well, it wasn't the cost, I can tell you that," former airport manager Pat Ryan, now the manager at a municipal airport in Tennessee, said this week. "They don't cost hardly anything. In my opinion, it was the fear that it might entice more or bigger planes to come to the airport. Which it won't."
Mr. Ryan, who worked at East Hampton Airport for 33 years and was the airport manager from 1987 to 2005, said the AWOS system might actually reduce the traffic at the airport because bad weather reports might encourage pilots to fly elsewhere instead of "shooting" an approach to the airport in iffy weather.
The AWOS sensors and transmitter cost approximately $67,000, easily affordable for East Hampton's busy runways, which have been operating at a revenue surplus in recent years, according to current airport manager Jim Brundige.
Mr. Brundige said this week that his understanding of the reason for the lack of an AWOS was that, for many years, any kind of improvement was seen as an effort to expand the airport—and was thus politically toxic.
Aversion to new equipment or any kind of construction at the airport has come from a well-organized group of local residents, most of whom live beneath the approach lanes of helicopters and airplanes. Their resistance has kept successive Town Boards from moving on the purchase of an AWOS.
After Mr. Brundige, a former jet and helicopter pilot, took over as the manager at the airport in 2005, he pushed for the town to get an AWOS. After its airport noise committee agreed that an AWOS was a vital safety feature that might reduce traffic and noise when weather is poor, the current Town Board eventually relented. It bonded approximately $80,000 in 2006 for the purchase and installation of an AWOS 3 system—which can make accurate measurements of the height of cloud ceilings above the airport.
But when Mr. Brundige filed a mandatory construction proposal with the FAA, he was told the airport could not make any such improvements until it had completed an up-to-date master plan. The town began work on a new airport master plan last summer but doesn't expect it to be ready for adoption until the end of 2008 or early 2009.
"They said we couldn't go forward until we had" the new master plan, Mr. Brundige said. "Which is kind of dumb. They're cutting off their nose to spite their face."
After pleading with the FAA to reconsider their stance on the AWOS 3 with no success, Mr. Brundige said he discovered that a less advanced system, the AWOS 2, had been pre-approved by the FAA and did not require further approval. The AWOS 2, which does not actually measure cloud height—it provides only an estimate based on dew point and temperature—is also much cheaper to maintain, Mr. Brundige said.
"It took me almost a year to get from one to the next and just figure out we could move forward," Mr. Brundige ?said. "Getting these things done is ?like pulling teeth."
The next snag in the process came when engineers planning the installation of the AWOS discovered that power supplies to the site, in the middle of the airport property, were insufficient to operate the AWOS.
Running new power lines pushed the total cost of the project to nearly $150,000. But with some leftover money from another project last year and the additional $41,000 the board just added to the 2008 capital budget, Mr. Brundige said he is hopeful the airport will finally get its AWOS soon—in time for the busy summer season.
"If the town approves the money, we can move forward fairly soon I think," he said. "Other airports I've talked to are happy with the AWOS 2. It's cheap to maintain and it gives everything you need to do an instrument approach. We'll have the capability of getting info by phone, or radio, or by computer."
Weather information for East Hampton is currently provided only by trained weather observers who work for Sound Aviation, the fixed base operator at the airport. At some hours, they are not available. Even when they are on duty, their reports are sometimes hours late or missing from the national aviation weather reporting system, which pilots can access in the air by radio request.