Significant Weather Impacts on the National Airspace System: A "Weather-Ready" View of Air Traffic Management Needs, Challenges, Opportunities, and Lessons Learned

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Wednesday, 5 February 2014: 4:30 PM
Georgia Ballroom 2 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Michael Robinson, AvMet Applications Inc., Reston, VA

The estimated costs associated with flight delays in the United States exceed $30 B annually. Of these delays, 70% are associated with adverse weather, making it the most disruptive constraint in the National Airspace System (NAS). The myriad of weather phenomena affecting air traffic operations range from convection and en route turbulence to low ceilings and visibility, strong winds from shifting directions, and wintry weather – all of which can occur in combination with compounding consequences.

Efficient air traffic management, seeking to mitigate avoidable weather impacts and optimize the use of available resource capacity while never compromising safety, is a colossal effort in risk management involving collaborative stakeholders, often with competing goals and priorities. The challenges are compounded by the need to make time-critical, “high-stakes” decisions often with limited and uncertain weather forecast guidance; information that still must be translated by aviation planners and decision-makers into anticipated impacts pertinent to their operations and assessed against operational impact thresholds for action. Because of these numerous and interconnected complexities and shortcomings, management of weather impacts on commercial air traffic operations are often “reactive”, and thus inefficient, resulting in excess delays and operating costs that may otherwise alleviated. These impacts affect both the timely transportation needs of millions of air travel passengers each year, as well as the profitability of a key U.S. commercial industry (airline companies).

As a whole, the weather – Air Traffic Management (ATM) operation is a microcosm of the needs, challenges, and opportunities of a “Weather-Ready” mission. Similar to targeted efforts of the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Ready Nation (WRN) initiatives, the air traffic enterprise must overcome significant scientific/technical and human factors/cultural challenges associated with impact-based weather predictions, integrated data systems, effective information dissemination and collaboration for proactive decision-making, and the implementation of best practices. This paper will demonstrate how these specific challenges arise during various types of significant aviation weather events and will present operational scenarios highlighting the need for enhanced weather preparedness in support of commercial air traffic operations. The paper will also discuss opportunities for the air traffic and aviation weather community to leverage broader, cross-domain considerations of the WRN effort to reduce avoidable impacts and weather-related costs, as well as opportunities for the WRN mission to learn from some of the trials and tribulations of the weather-ATM arena and to reaffirm its needs and priorities.