Weather and Flight Cancellations
Airport officials get involved in the collaborative decision loop with the FAA Command Center and the airlines when severe weather, such as a blizzard, impacts runways and gates, forcing a facility to halt most or all flights for an extended period, says Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and technical operations at Airports Council International–North America. Those situations involve lots of stranded passengers, so airport officials "need to advise their concessions to stay open late, coordinate with TSA to keep some checkpoints open if necessary, work with Customs and Border Protection to arrange for alternative times of staffing checkpoints, and assure they [airports] can put their own customer service plans into effect," Oswald explains. He says that major airports maintain supplies of cots, blankets, drinking water and other necessities, such as diapers, for just such an event.
One other party takes part in the final say about whether a flight will land or depart in severe weather: the pilot. According to Executive Travel's pilot columnist, Chris Cooke, "If the weather is below [specified] minimums, we can't even start the approach. If the weather goes below minimums once we start the approach, we can go down to ‘take a look' to see if we can land safely." Given the auto-land technology on newer jets, he adds, "It is rare not to be ‘legal' to land....The one factor that causes airplanes to abort landing more often than not would be high winds. All aircraft have crosswind limitations that cannot be exceeded safely. Same goes for takeoff."
If a big weather system is obviously moving in, major airlines routinely waive change fees in advance for those who'd rather not risk a cancellation. Do passengers take advantage of this? "It varies widely depending on the severity of the potential disruption—how scary it looks to people," says American's Tim Smith. If they wait until their flight is officially scrubbed, they'll be given options for rerouting, rebooking or a refund. "But we certainly try to reach out if they give us good contact information," Smith says.
JIM GLAB is a contributing editor of Executive Travel and the author of Rapid Descent: Deregulation and the Shakeout in the Airlines.
Clear air turbulence: This generally affects flights at cruising altitude and can be dangerous. Airsafe.com estimates that since 1980, six turbulence incidents have resulted in passenger deaths; between 2003 and 2009, at least 80 turbulence incidents caused serious injuries. Keep your seat belt fastened.
Thunderstorms, lightning, rain: Aircraft routinely get routed around strong thunderstorms; if a storm is right over an airport, controllers will keep incoming aircraft circling and delay departures until it passes. Modern aircraft are designed to take lightning hits with no ill effects. There was speculation that thunderstorms were involved in the disappearance of an Air France A330 over the mid-Atlantic in 2009, but the black box was never found.
Wind shear: The most dangerous aspect of thunderstorms during landing and takeoff is sudden, powerful shifts in air currents that can include microbursts—unexpected downdrafts that may cause a crash, such as Delta 191 at Dallas–Fort Worth in 1985. Since then, improved Doppler weather radar, deployment of airport windshear detectors and better pilot training have alleviated the risk.
Snow and ice: Snow reduces visibility and makes runways slippery. In December 2005, a Southwest 737 landing at Chicago's Midway in a snowstorm ran out of runway and barreled through a fence into car traffi c outside the airport, killing one person on the ground. Snow and ice conditions require departing aircraft to undergo de-icing. If they remain in the takeoff line too long, they might have to return for another treatment, causing lengthy delays.
Crosswinds: Strong winds that hit an aircraft at a 90-degree angle while it is barreling down the runway can blow it off course, as happened in Denver in 2008 with Continental 1404, which went off the side of the runway and caught fire.
Fog: Ask anyone who regularly flies in and out of San Francisco: Reduced visibility makes delays inevitable. Heavy fog was a contributing factor in the worst accident in history—the collision of Pan Am and KLM 747s on the runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, in 1977. (However, the official investigation put the blame solely on the KLM pilot for taking off without clearance.)
Note: The original article was corrected to reflect the official determination of the cause of the 1977 accident.