Commercial Aviation: Severe Weather and Tornadoes

Severe Weather and Airline Flights

This past February we’ve seen outbreaks of severe weather unusual for this time of year, specifically the February 29, 2012, tornado outbreak across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  As Spring comes around with March and April, more severe weather is likely and it does impact aviation.

The next severe weather event is forecast for Friday, March, 2, across the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys and is likely to include Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Nashville, as well as en-route air traffic flying over the region.

Yesterday’s (February 29th) storms formed a squall line with cumulonimbus clouds exceeding 40,000 feet into the atmosphere; some storms were as high as 50,000 feet.  While a few breaks existed in the line, it was necessary for aircraft en-route to avoid the cloud build-up’s — going around storms not only makes flights longer because of the detours they must take, but it slows the flow of air traffic.

Ever get hit with a weather delay and feel the airline was pulling a fast one?  While weather is always a good excuse, it’s possible your inbound flight was delayed because of en-route weather.  Wind blowing the wrong direction can also cause problems, especially at airports within the Northeast.  Air Traffic Control (ATC) is good at handling en-route weather and if there is too much air traffic in one particular area, you may be held temporarily on the ground.

The same applies if there is weather at your destination airport and too many aircraft are airborne at the same time; ATC may delay your flight at your origin through a FAA ground delay program or a ground-stop program for your arrival airport.  While this may seem unpleasant, it avoids unnecessary circling at your arrival airport and diversions if you start running low on fuel.

When there are weather problems affecting the number of flights a specific airport can handle within an hour, keep in mind it is the flights on regional jets that are often delayed or cancelled first; international flights along with higher capacity widebodies tend to receive priority.

Next, we look at a larger problem.

FAA does not use Tornado Warnings


Ok, the above may be a bit of a blanket statement, but fact is the FAA does not consider tornado warnings to be an aviation-specific product; as a result, the FAA does not distribute tornado warnings on aviation weather communications systems.

Look back at the Tornado that hit St. Louis Lambert Field last year – aircraft were in the process of boarding, passengers were on planes, and there was no information inside the terminal about the tornado warning.  A tornado warning can be issued based on Doppler radar indicated tornadoes, but in this particular case a long-track tornado was on the ground and was tracking directly towards the St. Louis Airport — A debris field was even visible on radar.

American Airlines aircraft on the ramp were not only damaged, but they were moved.  There was severe damage to parts of the airport including the American Airlines terminal.  The TSA screeners, who are part of the Department of Homeland Security, were not even aware – they had to leave their posts, running for their lives as the tornado hit.

According to expert meteorologists such as Mike Smith, this needs to change or airports need to develop their own Tornado plans.  Mike Smith is a well known meteorologist with respect to extreme severe weather and it’s safe to say he wrote the book on it – he did.

On a final note, I once landed at Minneapolis/St. Paul Intl airport after a tornado warning had been issued.  As the Boeing 757-300 I was in was decelerating on the runway, we were able to hear the tornado sirens from inside the aircraft.  Upon deplaning the pilot was asked about the sirens – he replied storms were moving in but said he wasn’t aware of the tornado warning until we were – hearing the sirens during landing and taxi.  Once inside the airport announcements were made to stay away from the glass, but that was about it.  Fortunately it was just a severe thunderstorm with rotation picked up by Doppler radar.

Unlike St. Louis, at least passengers in the airport were fully aware of the tornado warning.

This begs the question, what if it was the real deal?

Speaking of the real-deal, an EF-3 Tornado hit the area around the Wichita (KICT) Mid-Continent Airport the night of April 14th.  The airport was spared, but nearby Spirit AeroSystems and Boeing Wichita sustained damage.

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