Weathering the Unpredictable

by Uschi Schulte-Sasse
Passenger airplane landing on extreme weather
Passenger airplane landing on extreme weather

If you travel frequently, you’ve no doubt found yourself sitting in an airport waiting for an extreme weather event to pass. If you were lucky, the delay was measured in hours; if you were unlucky, it was measured in days. Think back to how you felt at that moment – helpless, frustrated, angry? Interestingly, if you ask a fellow traveler the same questions, chances are they would have felt something entirely different. Why? Well, the weather is outside of the human realm of control, and subsequently, the impact it has isn’t easy to reconcile.

Extreme weather events have a definite impact on air travel and all stakeholders from airlines and their passengers right through to airports, ground handlers, and the broader aviation network. From 2014 to 2018, there has been a 608% increase in the average time per day associated with weather-related flight delays. You didn’t read that number wrong – there has been a six hundred and eight percent rise in the times related to weather-related flight delays! It is undeniable that severe and extreme weather events are greatly impacting the aviation industry with no sign of a downward trend or slowing anytime soon as humanity dives into uncharted climate waters. The question of how, as an industry, aviation will tackle these challenges must be addressed. But, rest assured, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Before we get to answering that question, it’s worth exploring how different severe and extreme weather events impact aviation. From wind, rain, and snow to extreme heat – as the weather fluctuates, exacerbated by climate change, the aviation industry should be gearing up to be ready to catch the brunt of it and finding solutions to weather the storm, so to speak. If you’re an aviation and weather expert, feel free to skip to the industry measures section below “Tackling the Climate Challenge.”


Turbulence is a word any air traveler quickly becomes acquainted with. It ranges from those subtle shifts of the aircraft during the flight to the rough bumps that trigger the all-to-familiar “Fasten Seatbelt” light. Underlying turbulence is, of course, wind. But beyond turbulence, wind offers up its own special benefits and challenges for air travel, notably during takeoff and landing, but while in flight too. Under normal conditions, headwinds, tailwinds, crosswinds, and wind shear each bring their own benefits or challenges.

  • Headwinds blow toward the aircraft against the direction of travel. They are good for takeoffs and landings as they increase lift. The increased lift shortens the required runway length needed and allows for a lower ground speed resulting in fuel savings. Headwinds during flight result in additional fuel burn to maintain speed.
  • Tailwinds blow with the aircraft in the direction of travel. They aren’t ideal for takeoff or landings but are great while in flight. They facilitate faster travel times while saving fuel.
  • Crosswinds blow perpendicular to the direction of travel – across the airplane, so to speak. They are not ideal for takeoff or landings or while inflight. Crosswinds are so undesirable that airports actively account for crosswind conditions when planning and building runways, and each aircraft in operation have maximum wind speed limits that must be adhered to. For example, Airservices Australia notes that crosswinds above 28 km/h generally lead to the selection of alternative runways or a diversion to an alternative airport.
  • Wind shear is the sudden change of wind direction. It is most commonly associated with severe and extreme weather. It is never a good thing in aviation.

The Internet is full of videos of spectacular approaches and landings due to strong winds. Google it; you’ll be watching YouTube for hours sitting on the edge of your seat (I’m watching them right now as I write, and all I can say is “Hat’s off to the pilots”). If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being on an aircraft you see in those videos, you know it’s unpleasant at best, and down-right terrifying at worst.

Sensationalism aside, changing and worsening extreme weather patterns have a real impact on air travel. Starting with master planning to real-time operations, its impact can’t be understated. Airports plan for years before building runways to avoid crosswind conditions whenever possible. In extreme situations, long-term changes in weather patterns could render runways unusable during parts of the year. On the apron and tarmac, equipment, vehicles, and staff must exercise high degrees of caution in strong wind conditions. Debris is dangerous in an aviation environment. Finally, the flight schedule is affected as high winds impact the rate at which aircraft can land, and moreover, the rate of go-arounds. In a 2017, study on go-around decision-making by the Flight Safety Foundation, wind was a noted factor in over a third of go-arounds studied.


There are few airports that escape the onslaught of rain. In general, regular rain isn’t anything to worry about in aviation, but a lot of rain from extreme weather events like hurricanes and cyclones can have drastic flow-on effects at both the local airports as well as across the entire network. (we’re in the Northern hemisphere, so I’ll refer to them as “hurricanes” from here on out). There’s good and bad news when it comes to hurricanes. The good news is that the likelihood of hurricanes, while not entirely predictable, are foreseeable days, if not weeks, in advance. And, the closer they get to making landfall, the better the models are at predicting their paths. In short, they can be planned for. The bad news is that due to climate change, hurricanes are both increasing in frequency and in intensity.

What’s worse and in 2017, the city of Houston witnessed first-hand that the risks from hurricanes extend far beyond their initial impacts. Storm surges and flooding from extended heavy rains are significant risk factors. On the opposite side of the world, the state of Queensland in Australia saw some of the worst flooding in years.

Less critical, yet still impactful, are severe thunderstorms. Staying in Australia, a land of unbelievably beautiful, yet scarily intense thunderstorms, Airservices Australia’s website reads, “Thunderstorms, and the rapidly rising or falling air currents which usually accompany them, can make air travel… difficult for pilots in control of aircraft. Aircraft are unable to take-off or land during a storm and will often be re-routed… Thunderstorms and lightning strikes near airports may also stop ground operations until they pass.” Spoiler alert! The same that holds true for their big siblings, the hurricane, holds true for severe thunderstorms; they are becoming more severe and more frequent.


If you’ve never traveled in winter weather, it is an experience in and of itself. One never forgets watching the cascading line of snowplows clear the runway just before landing. Cool factor aside (pun intended), the sub-zero temperatures of winter travel brings with it snow and ice – both of which pose real operational challenges to stakeholders across the spectrum. Extreme snow events like “bomb cyclones” and this year’s Arctic polar vortex are shaping up to be the new normal.

When the temperature falls below freezing, the challenges for airports and airlines begin to mount up from the moment passengers start their journey to the airport right through until the flight gets airborne. Like toppling dominos, the challenges are compounding. As precipitation adds snow and ice into the mix, the real fun starts. Ground handlers’ health and safety becomes a tangible concern. Wind chill can factor into minus temperatures and amplify the hazards greatly. Equipment can become unreliable at low temperatures too. Add to this mix that you have more moving parts to coordinate (like the aforementioned, “cool” snowplows), snow removal trucks, etc., as well as deicing operations, the level of complexity in the airport goes up a notch, you might argue proportional to the wind chill factor.

It is also worth noting that the maximum crosswind speed allowance is lowered in wet and slippery conditions that are common during snow events. Taxiing is also done at lower speeds. In general, everything at the airport slows down a bit just like traffic on the road. It’s common sense, really.


INFORM is based in Aachen, Germany. From Valentine’s Day through to the end of the month, we experience unbelievably beautiful days, the nicest being 27 Feb where the recorded high was 21°C (70°F). This sounds great until you consider that the historical average should have been 7°C (45°F)! The whole of Spring this year has swung from one extreme to the other – from -2°C (28°F) one week to 24°C (75°F) the next.

Staying in Europe, the summer heat wave of 2018 saw Portugal move within 1°C of breaking the mainland Europe heat record of 48°C (118°F). The same heat wave in Germany was measured in weeks. If you’re not sure, 48°C (118°F) is hot – really hot. Life slows down a lot, and that applies to airports too. In 2012, a US Airways flight taxiing for takeoff literally sunk into the tarmac after it melted due to extreme heat. Again, yes, you read that right – tarmac can melt. The weather service reported the temperature at “just over 100 degrees F” (38°C). You’re probably going to guess what comes next… Heat waves are increasing in frequency and duration.

Tackling the Climate Challenge

It is an undeniable fact that the aviation sector is contributing to this downward spiral. Air transportation accounts for 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions annually. You could argue there is an obligation for all stakeholders to act. We promised this article wasn’t all doom and gloom; the good news is that the aviation industry isn’t standing idly by and watching climate change wreak havoc on our industry. There are proactive steps being taken at all levels of the industry, from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) at the top right down to individual companies being innovative in how they address the challenges that extreme weather brings.

IATA has set out a “three targets and four pillars” approach as they work to address the impacts of climate change in the aviation sector. The three targets are:

  1. “An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020.
  2. A cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth).
  3. A reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050 relative to 2005 levels.”

They go on to note that to achieve these targets, it will require the buy-in and action of the industry at large. All stakeholders have a role to play. (At INFORM, we agree, but we’ll come to that in the next section.) As such, IATA outlines that there are four pillars that the industry must build and reinforce collaboratively to reach the goals. They include:

  1. “Improved technology, including the deployment of sustainable low-carbon fuels.
  2. More efficient aircraft operations.
  3. Infrastructure improvements, including modernized air traffic management systems.
  4. A single global market-based measure to fill the remaining emissions gap.”

The final card in IATA’s hand is that they recognize that the while great planning, technological improvements, and operational improvements will go a very long way in addressing the challenges of climate change, they are likely still to fall short. As such, in 2016, they set up a global, market-based measure called “CORSIA” to allow for the offsetting of CO2 emissions from the aviation sector. For those of you new to climate change lingo, “offsetting” allows someone to compensate for their CO2 emissions (presumably that are unavoidable) by reducing CO2 emissions elsewhere.

The scheme outlines two requirements from the aviation sector:

  1. “All operators will need to monitor, verify and report their emissions on all international flights starting on 1 January 2019.
  2. Operators will be required to purchase “emissions units,” to offset the growth in CO2 emissions covered by the scheme.”

It is estimated that between 2021 and 2035, the aviation industry, under CORSIA, will offset some 2.6 billion tons of CO2. To help you understand that number, let’s borrow an analogy that will sit well with our American colleagues. Bill Chameides, an American-born atmospheric scientist, published on the Environmental Defense Fund website a helpful visualization for CO2. Picture an American football field (let’s put aside that it isn’t “real” football for the time being, that’s an argument best had over a drink at the pub – or bar). If you fill a big red balloon with CO2, 1 ton of CO2 would expand the balloon so it filled up approximately 10 yards. Balloons are cubic, so 1 ton of carbon = 32 ft3 of volume – approximately.

Now for the fun part… AT&T Stadium in Dallas, home of the Dallas Cowboys (fun fact: they play “real” football there too), has an interior cubic volume of 104 million ft3. That means you could fit 3,250,000 big red CO2 balloons in the stadium. CORSIA will offset some 800 AT&T Stadiums full of CO2 over the course of 15 years – that’s just over 53 football stadiums full of CO2 every year. That fills the 32 professional NFL team’s stadium and starts working its way through college stadiums also – in short, it’s a lot of CO2 that is unavoidable within the aviation sector and will have to be offset through CORSIA.

Aircraft manufacturers and airlines too are playing their part. According to IATA’s fact sheet on climate change, “each new generation of aircraft is on average 20% more fuel efficient than the model it replaces, and over the next decade, airlines will invest US$1.3 trillion in new planes.” Furthermore, airlines have seen a 10.2% improvement in fuel efficiency for total system-wide services from 2009 through 2018. This, of course, is incentivized by a monetary return. It’s estimated that for every ton of CO2 saved (1 big red balloon), the airline saves US$225.

Airports, too, are adjusting to the new norm of extreme weather. After Superstorm Sandy struck the US East Coast in 2012, a 12 ft (4 m) storm surge forced the closing of New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) for three days. As a result, in 2015, they invested some US$30 million in flood protection installing flood barriers, building and improving drainage systems, and other improvements to standard and emergency electrical systems.

And finally, adjusting to climate change has a human element too. There are several good examples of airlines working with their ground handlers to improve working conditions. Some include:

  • Southwest Airlines providing industrial-grade coats, gloves, and facemasks to airport workers. In addition, canceling curbside checks at airports.
  • United Airlines providing temporary heated shelters and rotating ramp workers so they will spend less time outdoors in the extreme cold.
  • American Airlines establishing a mobile warming van from which hand warmers, gloves, and hot beverages are provided to baggage handlers and other staff working outside.

All these initiatives, from IATA’s broad goals down to the three great examples that ground handlers are implementing demonstrate that big and small changes are afoot to tackle the climate-change challenge. They also show that small changes can have real benefits to the people who work at airports – remember human health and safety are intrinsic values that should be placed above all else. But, with all change comes added complexity.

In the last ground handler example, you’ve got another moving part in your ground operations to consider in the broader service challenge. Implementing warming vans clearly benefits workers, but it must be done in such a way that it doesn’t impact the airline's performance, the airport's efficiency, or the passenger's experience. Remember that in complex environments like airports, each decision has flow-on effects – many known, but some unknown. Remaining agile is the key to managing decision-making in these complex environments that are ever-changing.

Remaining Agile

IATA outlined technology as a driver for managing climate change. Software is an arrow in the aviation sectors climate change quiver that fits the role of technology solution to a T, and optimization software is doubly so. Advanced optimization software is especially effective in predicting weather impacts from late passenger arrivals and missed connections, to ground support equipment not working due to weather-related effects, or ground handling crews not available due to hazardous, snow-covered roads. The software can, in many cases, predict and prevent disruptions as well as improve the management of the impact of unforeseen disruptions and diversions thereby minimizing the domino effect of extreme weather events.

Let’s take for example our discussion on snow and ice from above. These conditions often require deicing operations. After applying optimization software, there is a plan for deicing staff, ground support equipment, and pad usage. The software also assists in determining fluid requirements, tracking fluid usage, interfacing with deicing trucks, and integrating with departure sequencer technology to further expedite a return to normal operations. There are simply too many moving parts for the human mind to do this process justice. Optimization software, on the other hand, can tackle these complex calculations in real-time.

To truly weather the storm, the software should also support changes in engagement-standard levels emanating from weather-related incidents. It can be integrated with weather prediction systems which, in addition to tracking thunderstorms and providing alerts when extreme weather is coming, can also provide notices when extreme thresholds of wind, temperature, or precipitation are exceeded. These extra data points help to optimize the operational planning of apron handling staff for better resource management.

Finally, optimization software is extremely effective in workforce management. When applied to extreme weather situations, the software can assist with:

  • Modifying/adapting shift timings to address weather impacts including the scheduling of breaks to enable staff to warm up and/or cool down.
  • Determining task lengths of time and associated workloads.
  • Planning for reserve staff.
  • Planning for cross-utilization of staff for weather-related operations (e.g., snow removal, additional deicing capacity, etc.).

A Look to the Future

The climate is changing. We know fully that this is a controversial statement in and of itself. We took the conscious decision to embrace that as reality when writing this article, but let’s quickly address the idea that climate change isn’t real and extreme weather events are not becoming more common and more intense. You’ve still got nothing to lose by proactively considering and planning for potential, extreme weather events. If you take the road of investing in optimization software as a tool to help you predict and respond to them, you gain all the benefits that this tool offers to start with and the added advantage that if climate change is real, and you’re wrong, you’re at least prepared for it. It’s a win-win!

Optimization software providers, working with weather prediction companies, are providing a strong match against extreme weather impacts for the air transportation industry. The weather prediction companies are enhancing the quality of their weather forecasts which are becoming more precise and granular in their data details. There also have been improvements in radar, light detection and ranging sensor (Lidars), and satellites along with improved computer hardware performance – all resulting in improved weather predictions. Looking to the future, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) stand to further advance measures to both predict weather impacts and minimize their disruptions on air transportation and related operations… but that’s a topic for another article.


This blog was originally posted in Global Trade Magazine.


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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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