Airlines Collecting Weather Data

Airplane on a tarmac

Saturday’s solstice was summer’s debut. It’s the sweltering season of wet-mitten humidity. How’s that antiperspirant working? Wouldn’t you like just five minutes shivering your timbers in one of last winter’s flight-delaying storms?

Remember the seemingly endless cancellations? Winter hadn’t even officially begun when American Airlines cancelled 950 flights out of Dallas over Thanksgiving weekend.

And what about Southwest Airlines’ cancellations out of Love Field that holiday weekend? Not so many. They had a better way to assess incoming weather. Way better data than the U.S. government’s weather balloon system.

Southwest reckons if they got planes in the sky they may as well attach new-fangled moisture-measuring sensors. This summer, other airlines are in the game. It’s moisture that results in snow on the tarmac, ice on the wings and no seat at the bar in the terminal.

So far, 87 of Southwest’s aircraft are pulling in data.

“We saw it wasn’t going to happen here,” Southwest’s chief meteorologist recently told Bloomberg.com about Thanksgiving week’s storm. “It was too warm and there were some dry layers in places in the atmosphere.”

Airlines need more than just drifting-balloon data to cut delays and chip away at the $8 billion a year they say foul weather and inaccurate predicting costs them. They need to know where in the sky a dog turns into a wolf.

This summer they’re on a tear to get planeloads of numbers crunching into U.S. National Weather Service computer models. They want real-time conditions in the atmosphere to make accurate predictions. They want all-business-all-the-time sensors.

UPS is in the data game. The cargo giant equipped 25 of its planes with sensors that add to Southwest’s data. Between them, they’re adding “more than 50,000 reports a day across North America.”

American Airlines, too, are equipping 225 aircraft with humidity-measuring sensors. But add up all the commercial aircraft compiling data and you get only 1 percent of the total planes up there.

Commercial carriers fly more than 25,000 flights a day. Imagine the potential for gathering storm data. Imagine the savings in time and money. It might even reduce the number of injuries caused by rough air.

Alaska Airlines and Hong Kong Dragon Airlines also are in the data game with sensors. So is Delta.

The Tarmac’s View:  Weather balloons? That’s all the Weather Service has? You can’t bet the house on two soundings a day from just 69 balloons across the continental U.S. Data radioed to the ground that can be as much as 12 hours old and far from airspace traveled by commercial jets. The whole operation seems ad hoc and slapdash. Weather causes about one-third of all flight delays. It’s high time we chased a better way to get real-time data.

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