How Airlines Deal With Hurricanes

Hurricane Laura has been causing significant concern and destruction across the Caribbean and United States over the last week. This hurricane is one of the strongest ever to make landfall in Louisiana. With such a severe impact across the region, it’s understandable that great care needs to be taken when it comes to transport. How do airlines deal with situations such as this?

Aircraft Silhouette Storm
Hurricanes are an overwhelming force, and great care needs to be taken when planning operations during the onset of one. Photo: Getty Images

Heading into the storm

It’s important to note that aircraft have a crucial part to play in mitigating the impact that hurricanes can cause. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses planes such as the Lockheed WP-3D Orion to conduct low-altitude data collection. These often fly right into the eye of the hurricane.

Altogether, these units fill in gaps in data not available from radar or satellite imagery being analyzed by ground staff. Earlier this year, the NOAA shared that analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions revealed a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season in 2020. It is now evident that the forecasts were correct.

Hurricane Matthew, as seen from the NOAA’s Lockheed WP-3D Orion aircraft. Photo: Terry Lynch / Office of Marine and Aviation Operations

Wired highlights that commercial airlines often collect weather information along their routes. This data can help predict a hurricane’s size, speed, and path.

Following the grounding of most of the world’s passenger aircraft amid the global health crisis, there were concerns about critical details regarding upcoming tropical storms being lost. Altogether, weather centers in the US and Europe saw a decline of over 80 to 90% in weather flight data. Above all, reports from planes are second only to satellite when it comes to forecasting weather.

Thunderstorm windshear
Aircraft operations across the globe can collect a wide range of vital weather data. Photo: Getty Images

Do airlines have to change their course?

In theory, if hurricanes aren’t considerably tall, planes can fly above them. This is because most tropical systems are not as tall as standard storms. The tallest part of a tropical cyclone surrounds near the central core of the hurricane.

So, if aircraft can fly above a hurricane and into its eye, some may feel that airlines can merely operate over it. However, this is not common practice as it could still be a risky move.

Suppose any problems arise while in the air, there could be huge implications if surrounded by a hurricane. For instance, the crew wouldn’t have as many options if there was a technical issue or a medical emergency. The hurricane’s path could limit the solutions for the pilots.

So, with carriers looking to avoid any skirmishes with hurricanes, they have to plan their operations in advance. The data gathered by forecasting groups such as the NOAA play a massive part in this preparation.

Forecasts that can predict a cyclone’s general track several days beforehand. Therefore, operators are able to make prior decisions on how to keep their services safe.

The United States Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both play an essential role in understanding the development of potentially disastrous weather events. Photo: Getty Images

Rearranging plans

Last year, Hurricane Dorian forced the cancellation of many flights across the Caribbean and North America. Even this week, Hurricane Laura forced the cancellation of 400 flights to and from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Wednesday alone.

Passengers planning to fly to or from hubs such as George Bush Intercontinental Airport would have been frustrated amid the changing circumstances. Photo: Getty Images

Generally, if a hurricane is approaching an airport that a carrier operates at, they would cancel flights and evacuate as many planes as they can before its arrival. Additionally, passengers are usually issued with travel waivers for flights to and from affected cities.

Certain cases

Even though airlines usually choose to keep clear of hurricanes, there have been some instances where operators haven’t shied away. In September 2018, Hurricane Florence was causing catastrophic damage across the mid-Atlantic coast of the US, especially in the Carolinas.

Most carriers were steering around the cyclone. However, The Points Guy reports on an MD-80 deployed by Allegiant Airlines flying between Bangor, Maine, and Orlando, Florida, took a shortcut over the top of it.

“Allegiant Airlines 2237 flew well above Hurricane Florence on Friday, September 14th, and was not affected by the storm,” said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson Paul Takemoto, as shared by The Points Guy.

“All air carrier flights file flight plans, and receive air traffic control service for the entire flight. Air traffic controllers direct flights around or above severe weather. They do not direct flights through severe storms.”

Hurricane Florence
Hurricane Florence formed on August 31st, 2018, and dissipated the following month on September 18th. Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Careful consideration

Perhaps, as forecasting and sensing technology continues to improve, there could be greater confidence to perform more regular flights over the top or hurricanes. However, the considerable damage that these cyclones often bring across regions can be detrimental. Therefore, companies are more likely to choose avoidance as the best course of action.

Overall, just like with several other harsh weather conditions, pilots have ways of minimizing risk in difficult situations. However, forecasting and planning play a crucial part in the decisions that crew members take when transporting passengers to their destinations amid challenging conditions.

Nonetheless, natural events have a significant impact on flight activity across the board. Additionally, the aviation industry also plays a vital role in helping society cope with the impact on these incidents. As the hurricane season continues, airlines operating in the regions that are under threat will be keeping a close eye on the development of tropical storms.

What are your thoughts about how airlines deal with hurricanes? Have you ever been on a flight when the pilot has chosen to fly over a cyclone? Let us know what you think of the process in the comment section.