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The pain of rain that's mainly on the planes

A new weather data system will slash the number of delayed and cancelled flights 

Aircraft sit on the tarmac during a thunderstorm, which creates a domino effect impacting flights across the country.

Everyone knew the storm was coming.

Forecasters were warning of serious weather days before March 13, when a nor'easter pounded New England and upstate New York. Despite the warning, the storm prompted the airlines to cancel 8,800 flights in three days, which caused nationwide havoc for airline travelers.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that 56 percent of National Airspace System delays are attributable to adverse weather, and that delays cost the airline industry about $6.7 billion a year. With more accurate and timely weather predictions, airports and airlines could prevent as many as two-thirds of those cancellations and delays.

Relief is on the way. The NextGen Weather Processor, a new system by Raytheon for the FAA that incorporates algorithms from MIT Lincoln Laboratory,  National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, will consolidate four legacy weather systems to deliver a single, high-resolution picture.

“When you have a number of flights canceled, it impacts the entire system nationwide,” said Derek Watulak, Raytheon’s NextGen Weather Processor program manager. “With NWP, the FAA and the airlines will have better information when weather might hit, avoiding delays and a lot of the full-scale cancellations.”

And then there was one

FAA air traffic flow management specialists and airline operators currently use a hodgepodge of weather systems that ingest weather data from varying inputs. As such, weather products from these different systems are often inconsistent and provide disparate weather pictures to users across the National Airspace System. NWP will provide one consistent weather picture that will be used by the FAA air traffic control and the airlines as they plan adverse weather mitigations.

“Just think of the problems that you might have if I was an air traffic controller in Philadelphia speaking German but the guy in New York is speaking French and the woman at Newark is speaking Japanese,” said Matt Tucker, an air traffic controller at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center and an NWP expert. “But if we're all speaking the same language – that is, if we are all looking at the same data – then it makes it a lot easier to make decisions on the operation of the system.”

The FAA will deploy NWP to two central facilities, 34 terminal radar approach control facilities, air route traffic control center facilities, three center-radar approach control facilities, numerous air traffic control towers and the Air Traffic Control System Command Center. The first site will go online in early 2019, with all of the installations complete by 2021.

The system ingests petabytes of data every hour from weather radars, environmental satellites, lightning, meteorological observations from surface stations and aircraft and government forecast models, feeding that information through sophisticated algorithms that churn out consistent, aviation-specific weather information “at a glance.”

“Air traffic controllers aren’t meteorologists, but with NWP they don’t have to be — the system does the translation for them,” said Alfred Moosakhanian, the FAA's NWP program manager.

NWP will provide air traffic controllers, traffic flow management specialists, pilots and airline operators access to current and predictive aviation-specific weather information they need — 24/7, 365 — to perform their duties effectively.

“At home, if there’s a thunderstorm coming, I want to know when to take the barbecue off the grill and get the kids out of the pool,” said Joe Venuti, a meteorologist at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. “In aviation, we want to uncover the cores of the storm—the really strong, turbulent cores that could damage aircraft and impact the safety of all aboard. NWP allows us to peel back a storm a layer at a time to find those cores, and let controllers determine whether there are safe passages or if they have to divert.”

The NWP will reveal all kinds of weather events, including icing, visibility, wind issues (surface and aloft), lightning and early storm growth, among others. “You name it; it’s all encompassing," said Venuti. "Whatever affects aviation, NWP will display it.”

Timing is Everything

Air traffic controllers currently use weather information that can be anywhere from five to 10 minutes old. NWP will provide weather product update rates of 25 seconds or less, and provide aviation-specific weather predictions that are out to eight hours.

“As a meteorologist, reducing latency to issue almost real-time weather products is something that I’ve been drooling over for the past five to 10 years, because in aviation, timing is everything,” Venuti said.

With enough advance notice, traffic flow managers can locally reroute traffic around weather, direct flights to weather-free arrival paths when nearing destination airports or delay arrivals in holding stacks until the weather clears.

“I have to give pilots more than enough time to make decisions so they can take corrective action, whether it's to turn or shoot for a gap,” Tucker said. “So if my weather data is anywhere from five to 10 minutes old, the hole that is showing in my radarscope might not be there. If I have a 25-second update rate mosaic then I’ll have confidence that this is actually where the weather is."

The promise is smoother travels, he said: "There’ll be less cancellations and less delays. And we'll be able to get the airports up and running after weather a lot quicker.”

Published: 03/16/2017

Last Updated: 05/17/2017

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