Weather – More Than Just Small Talk

by Uschi Schulte-Sasse

The weather has a considerable impact on our daily lives. It goes far beyond a quick glance outside the window in the morning to decide whether a sweater or a t-shirt would be the better choice. It is a popular topic to start small talk with people we don´t know, and is the polite door-opener for talks in business meetings all over the world.

But what do we know about the impact of weather on flying? The first things that come to one’s mind are the rough, turbulent flights we experienced in the past. Our experiences as passengers are focused on everything that happens after boarding, during the flight or the unforgettable hard landings. However, aircraft are built to withstand severe weather conditions. Did you know that almost every commercial aircraft is hit by lightning at least once per year? Experiencing this as a passenger, even as a frequent traveler, though, is not very likely. What happens? You might see a flash, and if the lightning strike is audible you will hear a bang comparable to someone striking a table with the palm of the hand. But nothing serious will happen to the aircraft, as it is comparable to a car constructed as a Faraday cage, and the systems in the aircraft are well protected.

On the other hand, thunderstorms and lighting have a severe impact on airport operations on the ground. And starting now, during the months of November to March, another very obvious weather impact in the Northern hemisphere is caused by low clouds, fog, rain, snow and ice. How do you stay on top of and optimize your operations amid all these adverse weather conditions?

As flying starts on the ground, we should take a closer look into what happens on the apron and why it is important to have an exact weather forecast readily available. Statistics provide a first indication as to how weather conditions impact daily operations: 37% of all airport delays are weather related. Storms, heavy rain or snow do not always mean that the airport needs to be closed and ground operations are not possible, but it might be that processes simply take longer under these particular circumstances. As we all know, every minute of aircraft ground time is an expensive exercise, and all the different parties at the apron have a tight, interlinked schedule. Snow, heavy rain or low visibility will not only impact driving, but also tasks such as loading and unloading are more difficult, as everything is wet and slippery. All this might take only a few seconds or minutes extra per task, but in the end can add up to a flight delay, and at worst, lead to a missed take off slot. Can you imagine that these factors led to 10 million minutes of weather-delay in 2013?

Thus, everybody involved in ground handling needs to be prepared to react to weather influence on their ground operations. Imagine, you could forecast the exact height of snowfall for each defined area of your apron or runway. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to forecast when a lighting storm will be above your airport, putting a stop to your earlier so nicely planned ground handling activities, and then knowing the exact minute it will pass so you can restart. In a best case scenario, these forecasts would be easily available and put to good use in your ground handling on-the-day planning solutions. Now imagine, you could know the forecast and its impact far in advance. Finally, imagine taking pro-active measures rather than trying to catch up with serious disruptions after the fact.

A dream for ground handling? Currently, ground ops related weather forecasts are rare and airport forecasts in general are very conservative (stay on the “safe side”), and provide only a low frequency of updates. In addition, different departments might be working with diverse weather sources which provide varying predictions.

A dream in general? Far from it! The Formula 1 circuit has paved the way and, true to its nature, raced ahead. The decision to e.g. switch to rain tires is triggered by precise and very short term updated precipitation forecasts. Aircraft turnaround operations are often compared to Formula 1 pit stop operations. Why not make use of qualified technology and knowledge gained in the car racing industry?

What does this mean? In our actual situation, we have precise weather data on the one hand and a powerful mechanism to manage tasks and processes on the other. My current focus is on the integration of the available data into existing processes and systems, which in this case allows ground handling operations to be pro-active with regard to weather issues. This is a development that advances the aviation industry as a whole. We plan to continue to work on finding ways to further reduce the impact of weather on ground handling in the future.

Which weather conditions currently disturb your operations the most? Looking forward to your feedback.

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About the author

  • Uschi Schulte-Sasse

    I have been working for INFORM GmbH since 1989 and am now responsible for the aviation division. All my life I followed my passion for aviation and have gained a significant amount of experience from a multitude of projects, customers and partners.

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