Turbulence is not an enjoyable part of flying, but it’s an inconvenience rather than a safety issue; for the buckled-up passenger, the risks are minimal. A major US airline recently released data from its aircraft fitted with automated turbulence reporting systems and found that 0.33 per cent of flight time was spent in turbulence – and just one per cent of that could be regarded as significant.
Technological advances in weather forecasting, radar and avionics have reduced an aircraft’s exposure to sudden turbulence. If aircraft do approach areas of unstable air, the seat belt signs are deployed in time and pilots try to plot the smoothest path around or through the bumps.
That doesn’t mean that every patch of inclement weather can be avoided. But now, as with so many other areas of life, big data is set to provide greater insight and real-time accuracy for pilots.
Cathay Pacific has been working with Hong Kong’s meteorological service – the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) – for some time. ‘A few years ago, we fitted about 40 or 50 of our aircraft with sensors and sent information to the HKO to help them with their weather forecasting’, explains Peter Gear, Operations Development Manager at Cathay Pacific.
‘All of our Boeing 777s now report back about any turbulence they encounter at regular intervals,’ says Gear, following the track of a transpacific flight on his screen.
This feedback has helped the HKO create more accurate forecasts for pilots, which can give not only the location and size of unsettled air, but also the affected altitudes.
This brings the real-time to the flight deck, and there’s more on the way. Airline industry association IATA has launched its Turbulence Aware platform, which aims to combine data from all its members. The programme will create a database to provide ‘the first global, real-time, detailed and objective information’ for airlines, says IATA. Cathay Pacific is part of the 14-airline advisory group, and more carriers are installing the necessary equipment ahead of the official launch in January 2020. Smoothly done.