I ran across a fascinating post on Terry Maxon’s Airline Biz Blog on the Dallas Morning Newswebsite. Since travel geeks and weather geeks often go hand-in-hand (I will freely admit to fitting both bills), I thought some of you regular UPGRD readers would also enjoy this. incidentally, if you don’t already read Maxon’s blog, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the aviation industry, especially with respect to American Airlines and North Texas.
In summary, the post links to a Bloomberg article which highlights how Southwest Airlines, among others, has started using experimental onboard sensors to collect meteorological data at flight level. Southwest was then able to use this data to more accurately predict the effects of a winter storm forecast to strike the D/FW Metroplex last Thanksgiving weekend, enabling the airline to maintain a mostly full schedule while other airlines canceled large portions of their schedules. Indeed, Southwest meteorologists correctly predicted that the storm would largely be a bust, despite the National Weather Service’s predictions of a crippling Icemageddon across North Texas. Similar systems are being used by American to generate real-time turbulence reports, which are then widely diseminated to advise other aircrafts of pockets of rough air to avoid.
According to the Bloomberg article, weather delays account for approximately 1/3 of all flight delays. Based on a total delay cost of approximately $8 billion in 2007, we can say that weather costs the airlines $3 billion a year, give or take. Indeed, some of the most highly publicized airline delay incidents are due to weather, including the infamous training thunderstorm complex on December 29, 2006 which crippled DFW airport for several hours in the afternoon and led to 44 planes sitting on tarmacs for more than four hours. One of the passengers on one of those planes was – you guessed it – Kate Hanni, who successfully led the push for the 3-hour tarmac delay rule following her experience.
Needless to say, this new technology has potentially profound implications for both the airlines and weather forecasters on the ground. Much of the sensible weather on the ground is controlled by temperatures and moisture in the mid and upper levels of the atmosphere, and historically, the only way to gather data in these areas is through the relase of weather balloons, which occur only twice a day and can only occur in limited areas. Subtle changes in upper level temperatures and humidity can mean all the difference between a major storm and nothing, and due to the limited amount of data available, this remains a poorly understood aspect of meteorology. A better understanding of these upper level features could make it easier for airlines to either plan for a catastrophic event like December 29, 2006 by pre-canceling flights, or preventing unnecessarily canceled flights as Southwest did the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Or as the article indicates, even a better understanding of seemingly harmless issues like ground frost can save airlines millions of dollars a year in unnecessary costs. And let’s face it, every penny counts in an industry known for razor-thin margins.
On the ground, the potential benefits are two-fold. Dallas is notoriously wussy when it comes to winter weather, and the mere forecast of snow or ice sends the region into full freakout mode. Of course, when the forecast ends up being a bust like the Thanksgiving weekend storm, the weather forecasters look pretty dumb, but more importantly, the unnecessary closing of schools and businesses, along with the unnecessary stockpiling of sand and salt and authorization of overtime for city road workers, leads to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in material, labor, and lost productivity costs. Conversely, an accurate forecast of a major event, such as the ice storm that crippled North Texas for nearly 4 days just a week later, could enable schools, business, and airlines to shut down early and get everyone out of harm’s way before the storm hits. In a part of the country known for wild, unpredictable weather all year long, getting a more accurate head’s-up on what’s coming would be a very big deal, indeed.