Last Updated: 10/23/2012*

ATM - Andy Zogg ImageOn June 29, a “super derecho,” a quick-moving wind and thunder storm, slammed 700-miles along the east coast including the Washington metro area, leaving 3.5 million households without power and causing 22 deaths. Unfortunately, most people had no idea it was coming until it was overhead.

Imagine the effect the storm had on the thousands of aircraft in-flight that evening and on airports with thousands of passengers and dozens of scheduled departures and arrivals every hour.

Fortunately, the derecho is a rarity, but weather – rain, wind, storms, and even temperature extremes – disrupts the flow of air travel every day. Weather is a serious, costly and frustrating force in the aviation industry. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 70 percent of all aviation delays are caused by weather events, costing the U.S. $27 billion in lost productivity annually and resulting in inconvenience and delays felt by the traveling public.

But two-thirds of these delays are preventable with better planning through access to information. That is why the public and private sector are working together to improve how air traffic controllers and pilots identify and manage weather, minimizing its negative impact on aviation. It is a key initiative of the FAA’s Next Generation (NextGen) air traffic control modernization program, an effort that has already begun to improve the National Airspace System and transform the way we fly. NextGen reduces delays, enhances safety and saves fuel by integrating current and emerging technologies to advance our entire air traffic infrastructure.

NextGen will ensure that we are able to accommodate the growing demands on our nation’s national air space and aviation industry, which sustains millions of jobs and accounts for more than five percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

For example, NextGen is moving aircraft navigation from traditional ground-based radar systems to a global constellation of satellites and upgrading air traffic communications infrastructure to enhance real-time data availability and enable effective collaboration through information sharing. Through these and other initiatives, NextGen will address the growing need for more flights and increased passenger and cargo capacity in America’s congested airspace.

But it is the FAA’s commitments to NextGen, including the Common Support Services – Weather and NextGen Weather Processor programs, which will give air traffic controllers access to more accurate and consistent weather models and increase the quality and quantity of weather information available.

These NextGen initiatives will allow us to better predict, plan and respond — not just react — to weather, and that will provide real benefits for both air travelers and businesses.  Today, air traffic managers are required to use human judgment to “interpret” weather conditions and estimate weather’s impact in the U.S. airspace. However, differing technologies, which vary from region to region, limit the controllers’ ability to efficiently manage the flow of air traffic around the day’s weather events, resulting in inconsistencies and delays in information sharing.

NextGen’s weather and automation initiatives will standardize aviation weather products, and consolidate various weather displays to streamline the decision making process while improving strategic planning and tactical operations through decision support tools for maximum benefit.

In relying on these emerging systems, and the training that comes with their use, the FAA’s ability to more effectively plan for weather events with all aviation stakeholders before they occur will mean fewer delays, more efficient routes, less fuel and billions in cost savings each and every year.

NextGen it is not just about time and cost savings. Reductions in fuel use and minutes shaved off thousands of flights through greater efficiencies will reduce CO2 emissions as well, resulting in a healthier planet. The FAA estimates that, in the Washington, D.C. region alone, NextGen will reduce fuel consumption by between 2.5 and 7.5 million gallons each year.

That means a reduction of up to 75,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions in our atmosphere annually.

We cannot control the weather. But, through enhanced information sharing, innovative 4-Dimensional weather modeling, improved aviation weather products and our nation’s air traffic managers all operating with a common set of strategic and tactical tools, NextGen can ensure that the next derecho will be much less disruptive to the aviation industry.


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