Changing weather patterns are a staple of news headlines. Fierce winds, heavy rains, and extended droughts vie with extreme temperatures for top billing.
But while generalizations are easy to make, forecasters still struggle to come up with the specifics that may affect any one journey. The industry need for more detailed and timely weather information grows stronger. More flights, tighter schedules, and a continuing focus on safety means airlines yearn for a constant feed of relevant data.
IATA’s Meteorological (MET) Project has two main objectives: mitigate the impact of turbulence on flights; and improve weather forecasting accuracy on a regional and global basis to assist flight planning activities.
There are different types of turbulence. Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) is the most common form, usually experienced when transiting a fast-moving jet stream to more sedate air. In rare cases, turbulence can be a dangerous weather phenomenon. While the last fatality was 21 years ago, it still causes multiple crew and passenger injuries on an annual basis. Aside from injuries, turbulence can cause structural damage to aircraft as well as force flights to divert or delay. In all, the cost to airlines can be significant, in the hundreds of millions of dollars range.
Kris Hutchings, WestJet’s Manager, Cabin Safety and Quality, agrees that turbulence is a threat every day. “It remains one of our primary focuses of injury prevention due to occurrences of cabin crew and guests getting injured as a result of unanticipated turbulence,” he says.
According to figures from Professor Paul Williams at the UK’s Reading University, CAT is getting worse due to an increase in CO2 levels. Light, moderate, and severe turbulence at cruising altitudes on transatlantic flights in winter, for example, show a respective 59%, 94%, and 149% increase compared with similar results on other flight routes and in other seasons.
“We conclude that, all other things being equal, climate change will lead to bumpier flights later this century,” he says. “Flight paths may become more convoluted to avoid stronger and more frequent patches of turbulence, in which case journey times will lengthen and jet fuel consumption will increase.”
Predicting turbulence has therefore become a critical issue. Charts, radar, and PIREPS (pilot reports of weather conditions in flight) are less than perfect tools, however. As it stands, CAT cannot be seen, detected on radar, or accurately forecast, leaving some to opine that predicting turbulence is still more of an art than a science.
Not surprisingly, an IATA industry survey revealed that 96% of respondents wanted more accurate, real-time information about turbulence, its location, and severity.
As Gilberto López Meyer, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Safety and Flight Operations succinctly puts it: “The industry can do better.”
To answer this requirement, IATA is developing a global database of turbulence reports to provide airlines with an enhanced situational awareness tool.
Better forecasts: A collaborative approach
The industry’s focus has also turned to improved weather forecasting in general. Work with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has been going on for some time. Some 40 global airlines collaborate with the WMO on the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) program, sending wind, temperature, and humidity data from airborne aircraft.
After satellite-based observations, this is the most important source of data for forecasting weather globally. There are areas of the globe which are data sparse, however, and have limited or no aircraft observations. “The more airlines that join this program, the faster critical mass can be achieved from a global coverage perspective,” says Gilberto López Meyer, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Safety and Flight Operations. “This will ultimately improve weather forecasts to both airlines and the world’s population.”
Getting improved weather information to pilots will be vital. Kris Hutchings, WestJet’s Manager, Cabin Safety and Quality, notes that WestJet is always looking for best practices, new technologies, and tools to improve the accuracy and reliability of information that it uses to make decisions. “As the AMDAR program evolves we will continue to update our internal processes to utilize this information,”
IATA’s research has shown that the options available for introducing weather information to the cockpit—both ingoing and outgoing—are increasing rapidly while the costs of investing in such solutions are reducing. Some airlines have decided to enable airborne turbulence recording and subsequent transmission of those reports to the ground on a minimal budget.
40 global airlines collaborate with the World Meteorological Organization on the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay program, sending temperature, wind and humidity data from airborne aircraft.
The real-time database will launch in 2019. It will be created by a contracted third-party vendor with airlines, original equipment manufacturers, data service providers, software developers, and various weather information providers all involved in the project.
Functionality will revolve around receiving turbulence data reports from airlines’ operational control centers, aggregating the reports, de-identifying the airlines, and making the reports ready for operational consumption.
The initial data sources are generated in-flight by aircraft experiencing turbulence. Advances in cockpit avionics technology means an aircraft is now able to calculate a turbulence metric value using an algorithm hosted within the aircraft’s avionics. This algorithm uses measured aircraft data such as speed, roll, pitch, and other parameters to calculate.
The global repository of real time turbulence reports will then be accessed by participating airlines via application program interfaces or publish/subscribe protocols, allowing them to receive the real time location and severity of atmospheric turbulence.
Ultimately, real time, in-situ turbulence reports will be shared among aircraft in flight and their respective dispatch and flight operations departments.