Unpacked: Summer Thunderstorms


Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry!

This edition’s hot topic – literally – is summer thunderstorms. Cue the waterworks.

Image courtesy of carolynconner on Flickr

Thunderstorms can happen at any time of year, but weather conditions in the summertime, namely moisture and quickly rising warm air, make for a perfect storm. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service, there are about 16 million thunderstorms a year. With that many, a couple are bound to impact our 800 daily flights. With the majority of our operations along the East Coast, where moisture and hot air are abundant throughout the summer months, we face a real operational challenge during bad weather. Uneven pockets of air that thunderstorms produce mean turbulent air space, as well as strong winds and lightning. We will only take to the skies when it’s safe to do so.

As if summer thunderstorms weren’t enough, summer also means hurricane season! Learn more about how hurricanes can snarl operations. Summer thunderstorms can be tricky because they’re far less predictable than big winter storms, which we can sometimes see on the weather maps a couple of days out.

Thunderstorms, by contrast, develop, move and change rapidly (sometimes minute-by-minute), and even a small change in the track or intensity of a storm can dramatically change a flight plan or the flow of air traffic. What’s more, a thunderstorm does not need to be overhead at your airport to cause problems; they can affect the routes used to get to and from that airport and cause delays even if you can see blue skies from the window in the terminal. If lightning is spotted within five miles of the airport terminal, then we pull the safety card and keep our ground crews inside until the storm passes. Without ground crews, we can’t always safely move airplanes or load and unload luggage.

Adding all of these what-if scenarios together translates to a real challenge for our System Operations team when it comes to planning ahead. If we know we will need to cancel flights, we’d rather let customers and crews know well in advance so you don’t make an unnecessary trip to the airport.

When we can’t plan ahead because a storm’s path and effects are unpredictable, we work closely with our Dispatch team, our pilots, the airports, and the FAA to ensure that we’re up and flying as soon as its safe to do so.  Satellite, radar and weather modeling technology allows our Dispatch and System Operations teams to watch the weather systems moving in and out of an air space and plot flights accordingly.

Onboard technology also allows our pilots the ability to see weather immediately surrounding an airborne plane to allow them to navigate around weather. Sometimes we can fly above storm systems, but some storm cells are as high as 60,000 feet, and most of the time the best course of action is to fly around it, which causes longer flight times or delays for folks waiting to get on that plane for the next flight (which might be in a sunny, thunderstorm-shy city like San Diego).

Your best plan of action if you’re flying during summer months (or any time, really) is to make sure to check your flight status before heading to the airport. It’s possible that the sky is clear as a bell at your home, but there’s a storm coming in when your flight is scheduled to depart. We can’t always read Mother Nature’s mind in advance, and she doesn’t always tell us where she’s headed next, but – much like a strict mother who doesn’t let you stay out until 2 a.m. to party – we do respect her and know that she has ultimate authority.

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!