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Recently, Delta Air Lines met with personnel from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), who were largely stumped as to why the carrier was experiencing less turbulence year over year. Turns out, a NOAA scientist was tracking automated turbulence reports, and noticed that Delta was the only airline to show decreased encounters with higher-level turbulence in the last three years.
Delta’s rivals all fly through the same regions on the same days traveling to many of the same airports, but as I learned during a recent trip to the airline’s Atlanta headquarters, its unique approach to informing pilots of rough air patches has quietly made flying a lot less bumpy.
The reason for the increase in avoidance? Lines of code, iPads onboard and a willingness to ditch a century-old way of doing things.
Delta’s Flight Weather Viewer app isn’t new, but its underpinnings were recently revamped to make it more powerful than ever. Initially developed in 2015 and split across two Microsoft Surface apps (one for domestic airspace, one for global), the latest incarnation is a single app built to run on the Apple iPads available to pilots on all Delta mainline flights. I’m told that the uptake and usage is incredible, north of 80% at last check.
That’s particularly impressive given that its use isn’t built into basic flight training. Instead, they’re taught to use PIREPs — old-fashioned Pilot Reports.
A Paradigm Shift
Since the days of Wilbur and Orville Wright, pilots have done an admirable job trying to keep each other posted on weather conditions based on their actual experiences in the sky. The Pilot Report, or PIREP, works as such: pilot experiences turbulence, pilot reports turbulence, other pilots do their darnedest to translate that report into something useful. The problem with that, of course, is that no two pilots can be in the same place at the same time, with the same aircraft type, at the same altitude. So while it’s not useless data, it’s not highly accurate. It’s also tough to act on. You have to overcompensate, which can lead one report to close down entire lanes of flight when a pocket of turbulence is only in a very narrow slice of air.
Technical pilots involved with the app’s development have known PIREPs to lead pilots to change altitudes “seven times in 90 minutes,” all in vain, trying to escape turbulence that’s present in all allowable altitudes. If you think about airspace as you would a multi-lane highway, that’s the plane swerving all over the place, which affects traffic all around it.
Delta Flight Weather Viewer has made the PIREP obsolete by collecting and analyzing “hundreds of thousands of data points,” with a plan to boost that to “millions,” creating a model that forecasts turbulence with a level of confidence heretofore unseen.
I was given a demo of the app by an honest-to-goodness Delta pilot, who explained that the app can save time, fuel, emissions and worry. Leveraging data from sensors on hundreds of aircraft (and growing), and translating that turbulence data into a 0 to 100 scale that can be understood by pilots of all types of aircraft, the turbulence guesswork that has dominated flight for over a hundred years has largely been removed.
In fact, it allowed him to safely navigate through a pretty wicked thunderstorm when flying between Atlanta (ATL) and Cancún (CUN). Before having the app onboard, he would’ve likely radioed in and been told that he’d need to fly around the storm, or be ready to climb and descend through several thousand feet of airspace hunting for the path of least turbulence. With the app, he was able to see that turbulence in a certain vertical layer of air wasn’t all that troublesome, not at all dangerous and present in all allowable altitudes.
So, he gave the flight crew and passengers a heads-up that they’d be experiencing mild bumps in about 20 minutes, enabling the cabin to prepare. He kept his altitude, rather than wasting time and fuel hunting in vain through different layers. Part of the magic isn’t just avoiding turbulence, but understanding when it’s impossible to avoid, and how to most efficiently manage that reality.
Delta’s Meteorology Department > Weather Channel
During my tour of Delta’s Operations Customer Center, a lair that felt more NASA than commercial airline, I spent a fair amount of time with the company’s dedicated team of 20+ meteorologists. Delta makes a significant investment in having its own weather team, but it’s a no-brainer for the company. “When local Atlanta schools are curious if a looming snowstorm will be significant enough to trigger a delay or cancellation,” one meteorologist told me, “they don’t call a weather center — they call Delta.”
While this particular anecdote is cute, the impact of that team is far broader. Delta has a history of flying into, over and through hurricanes. Last year, Delta was a lone wolf, operating flights into and out of San Juan (SJU) despite Hurricane Maria bearing down on the island. My visit gave me a lot of perspective on how that was possible, and moreover, why Delta was largely alone in doing so. “These public weather maps do not show airliners to scale when overlaid atop a hurricane,” one staffer told me. “A plane is comparably tiny. It’s nimble, and it can maneuver around narrow bands. But if you’re an airline relying on national weather service intel, you can’t be confident enough in that data to move a cabin full of people in or out.”
Delta looks at that data, sure, but it also has an in-house team that makes more granular decisions. The same expertise that enables it to fly through hurricanes also allows it to restart service at closed airports more quickly than rivals, as we saw twice this year at New Bern (EWN) post-Hurricane Florence and Panama City (ECP) post-Hurricane Michael. These meteorologists are also feeding into Delta’s Flight Weather Viewer app. While collected data is essential, this team can take a global look at weather, layer it with experience and expertise in how certain patterns tend to kick up turbulence, and then they can manually add warning zones. These zones are viewable by pilots, enabling them to dodge potential trouble areas as predicted by Delta’s experts.
Is a Turbulence-Free Future Possible?
Only 3% or so of turbulence is capable of rocking a cabin to the point of launching passengers out of their seat or triggering “final goodbye” texts, but historically, pilots have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fly above, below and around any amount of turbulence — even the mild stuff that wouldn’t be tough to stomach if he or she could just give the cabin a heads-up that it’s coming at a specific time. Air travel lanes clog up, fuel is wasted and passengers grow frustrated by an inability to plan their restroom breaks and overhead compartment visits around the seatbelt light.
Delta really doesn’t intend to be in the app business, but it has nevertheless chosen to digitize the atmosphere. It’s an airline, and it’s trying to move thousands of flights each day in a safe, timely manner. But it’s also in the business of innovation, and if it takes a turbulence app to unite the aviation industry and create a smoother future for all, it seems willing to invest the resources to make it happen.
The airline’s approach to modeling turbulence, leveraging data from as many places as it can find, has consistently improved. We’re still in the first inning of outsmarting bumps, but if the trajectory continues, it’s not difficult to envision a world where more airlines jump onboard. This is a rare case of a rising tide truly raising all boats.
Each airline flies through the same lanes, and some estimates peg the cost of turbulence on the industry as a whole at $100 million annually. If we’re able to build a system that makes it easier to predict and manage turbulence, that’s a universal win. Airlines love saving money, the FAA loves reducing emissions, passengers love knowing when turbulence is approaching (and how long it’ll last) and pilots love when they’re able to give the cabin a smooth ride.
Big data, well harnessed, is solving all of that.
All images by the author.
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