IATA turbulence forecasting tool puts smoother flights on the horizon

Oct 24, 2019

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Turbulence — or even the threat of turbulence — inarguably makes flights unpleasant. The seatbelt sign stays on, the drink and meal services may be suspended and 30-some thousand feet in the air, you’re strapped down and possibly being shaken around like a Boggle game.

But in the near future, turbulence may become much easier for pilots to anticipate and avoid. The International Air Transport Association has been testing a turbulence forecasting tool with about 15 airlines and will make it available to any company that wants to participate in January.

Turbulence Aware, as IATA calls the program, automatically combs weather data already generated by aircraft and shares it anonymously with all participating organizations.

According to Katya Vashchankova, head of Turbulence Aware at IATA, 1,400 aircraft are already equipped and participating in the trial, producing a combined 45 million reports each year.

Those 45 million reports include smooth air condition as well as bumps.

“It’s important to know where you should go to avoid turbulence, not just where turbulence is,” Vashchankova said.

Turbulence Aware is crowdsourcing in pursuit of smoother flights.

“It’s all about giving passengers a much better ride,” said Captain Brent King, head of flight operations efficiency at IATA.

According to the organization, its tool is a big step forward in turbulence prediction because it’s more immediate and objective than the other reporting mechanisms that exist on a larger scale already.

Pilots, IATA said in press materials, report turbulence subjectively. Their own experiences and cockpit distractions can affect how severely they perceive any particular instance and how quickly they’re able to report it.

Automatic turbulence updates are much more objective and it’s easier for all participants across organizations to receive the data it if it’s not being filtered through individual companies.

The system, IATA said, also makes aviation safer and more efficient.

A sample of IATA's Turbulence Aware data. (Image courtesy of IATA)
A sample of IATA’s Turbulence Aware data. (Image courtesy of IATA)

On the safety side, IATA said the data will help prevent in-flight injuries by allowing pilots to bypass pockets of turbulence. It also means pilots can use the seatbelt sign more judiciously.

“Often I’m guessing when I should put the seatbelts on and for how long, and it can make a fool of you,” King said. But with more accurate turbulence forecasts available, the guesswork can be eliminated.

“I think the bottom line for the passenger is moving forward, when the captain puts the seatbelt sign on, pay attention to it,” he said. “He’s working with more objective data so he knows something is about to happen.”

On the efficiency side, it will allow for more precise flight plans, saving on fuel burn.

“It’s been nothing but positive,” Vashchankova said. “People want to use the next generation of data” to predict turbulence.

For passengers, all that data will ultimately translate to a more comfortable experience in the skies.

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson/TPG

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