Air travelers, who experienced the recent polar vortex and related winter storms in North America, know that extreme weather has a definite impact on air travel and its participants; the airlines, ground handlers, airports and passengers. The same could be said of other extreme weather conditions experienced around the world ranging from Cyclone Idai, which struck Mozambique and Zimbabwe on March 16 and 19, 2019, respectively, or the tornado that hit Cuba on January 28, 2019, and Hurricane Michael, which hit Florida on October 10, 2018. These events and other extreme cold and hot weather conditions are wreaking havoc on the aviation industry. The Internet is full of spectacular landings or approaches due to strong winds or wind shear. On the ground, besides objects being blown and posing hazards on the airfield apron, the biggest disturbance from extreme weather is to flight schedules wherein flights must be diverted and/or there are failed landing approaches leading to major disruptions to flight arrivals and departures. Passengers must be re-routed and flight plans changed with aircraft being re-routed to account for missed flight legs of their own or other flights. Ground handling too is affected with crews having to manage unforeseen turnarounds, rely on airports to provide space for unexpected aircraft, and left unable to fulfill planned line maintenance tasks, potentially leading to increased Minimum Equipment List (MEL) items.
To contain the negative impacts of extreme weather, airlines, airports, associations and regulatory bodies are considering ways to better address the fallout from climate change and extreme weather conditions. They are turning to aviation optimization software solution providers for solutions that mitigate some of these challenges. By understanding how extreme weather is affecting the industry, and the role of optimization software in better managing weather-related factors, airlines, airports and ground handlers can be better prepared.
Extreme weather impacts on the aviation industry
Extreme weather conditions cause a variety of problems. Planes cannot get the lift they need for take-off because of extreme heat. Below freezing temperatures introduce safety concerns for outdoor workers. Passengers cannot reach airports in time for their flights due to unplowed or dangerous road conditions, and equipment won’t start. Wind poses its own special challenges. Headwinds, tailwinds or crosswinds each with their own characteristics:
- Headwinds blow toward the aircraft against the direction of travel and are good for takeoffs and landings as they increase the lift, thus shortening the required runway length need and allowing for lower ground speed which saves on fuel consumption.
- Tailwinds, which blow from the back of the aircraft, are preferred over headwinds during flight since they facilitate faster travel times and save fuel.
- Crosswinds and tailwinds can pose a negative impact on both starts and touchdowns depending on the size of the aircraft which is why various maximum wind speed limits exist for different aircraft.
Winds and other extreme weather conditions can introduce problems ranging from increased turbulence, more difficult take-offs and landings, longer flights, more weight restrictions, airport closures, and ground-related airport impacts such as melting runways and taxiways, and flooded runways due to rising sea levels and storm surges. When Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast of the United States in 2012, a 12-foot storm surge forced the closing of New York’s LaGuardia Airport for three days leading to the installation of new flood barriers and drains. The threat of rising storm tides prompted the raising of a new passenger terminal in Singapore’s Changi Airport.
A report published in the journal, Nature Climate Change, noted that rising temperatures are substantially increasing flight times. It calculated that an additional 60 seconds of flight time on every plane would translate to jets spending an estimated 300,000 extra hours per year in the air requiring an additional one billion gallons of jet fuel and increasing CO2 emissions. Extreme weather also is having a measurable increase in flight delays. Data from Eurocontrol, which coordinates national air traffic management agencies, indicates that in 2018, weather was the single most significant cause of flight delays, rising to 14,600 minutes a day; a six-fold increase over 2014 weather-related delays during flights of 2,400 minutes per day.
In addition to the airports instituting design changes such as installing flood barriers and drains, raising terminals and lengthening runways, the air transportation industry is also setting new objectives to combat climate change effects. The International Air Transportation Association (IATA) established climate change goals setting targets for improvements in fuel efficiency (i.e., 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020), a cap on net aviation CO2 emissions from 2020 (i.e., carbon-neutral growth), and a reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. Additionally, it has called for a “four-pillar” strategy encompassing improved technology, more efficient aircraft operation, infrastructure improvements, and a “single global market-based measure to further address the CO2 emissions gap.
To protect airport workers in extreme cold conditions, airlines are taking unprecedented measures such as:
- Southwest Airlines providing industrial-grade coats, gloves and facemasks to airport workers, and also cancelling 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 were provided to baggage handlers and other outside staff
Given the negatives effects of extreme weather, the industry is applying optimization software to help address weather-related disruptions.
Optimization software addressing extreme weather impacts
Advanced optimization software is proving one of the industry’s best weapons against extreme weather. This 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 (e.g., push back tractors sinking into melting asphalt in extreme heat), and ground handling crews not available due to hazardous snow covered roads. The software can prevent and better manage disruption impacts and diversions, minimize the domino effects of extreme weather events, and reduce the rate of impacts.
Consider extreme icing conditions and the impact of required deicing operations. Applying optimization software, there can be a plan for deicing staff, ground support equipment, pad usage, and for determining fluids, tracking fluid usage, interfacing with deicing trucks, and integrating with departure sequencer technology to further expedite a return to normal. The software also supports 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 and/or extreme thresholds of wind, temperature, precipitation and/or snow are exceeded, also help optimize operational planning of apron handling staff for better resource management.
Optimization software is extremely effective in workforce management; particularly evident in extreme weather situations helping 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; and
- Planning for cross-utilization of staff for weather-related operations (e.g., snow removal, additional deicing capacity, etc.).
This software delivers vital support to help prevent and/or minimize the extreme weather impacts by providing preventive predictions and planning support. For instance, when aircraft deicing operations are required, the software used in conjunction with weather prediction systems, can help predict the number of scheduled departures potentially requiring deicing measures and facilitate staff plans, equipment and deicing area space requests, etc., in advance, to avoid unnecessary delays.
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 radars, light detection and ranging sensor (Lidars) and satellites, along with improved computer hardware performance, all improving weather predictions. Look to the future for Artificial Intelligence (AI) to further advance measures to both predict weather impacts and minimize their disruptions on air transportation and related operations.