Image taken from the evening of Thursday, May 18, 2017, where 45 tornadoes broke out across Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri.
Have you ever wondered what happens when a flight delay occurs due to weather besides the frustration and confusion? Weather is the largest cause of delays for aircraft, affecting mostly airport arrivals and surprisingly worse for summer storms than winter ones. Unlike winter storms which move slowly and can be forecasted days in advance, summertime thunderstorms can develop quickly over large parts of the country and may follow a less predictable path. Some of these cells may stretch up to 60,000 feet (most commercial aircraft fly around 39,000 feet or lower). This may cause planes to detour as much as 20 or 100 miles around a line of thunderstorms, rather than flying into the tops of thunderstorms. In any case, rain or snow may slicken the runway.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has a flow control program that prevents an overflow of aircraft taking off for a destination and rerouting traffic around weather. Ground stops are in place for aircraft that have not left the airport and will not be cleared for takeoff until weather conditions improve, reducing the number of flights arriving at the impacted area. Inbound planes that can’t land due to a storm affecting the airport will be asked to slow down or go into a holding pattern and often circle the airport until the storm clears. If the thunderstorms persist, the holding aircraft will have to eventually divert to other airports, wait out the bad weather, refuel, and depart later on to the original destination.
If you are traveling when storms are expected, consider the possibility of delays and plan accordingly. Book flights as early in the day as possible- the afternoon and evenings will have the most potential for thunderstorms during the summer months. The next time your flight gets delayed due to severe weather, think about all the science and coordination that goes into all of it.
To learn more about severe storms and their impacts on aviation, please click here!
© 2018 Meteorologist Sharon Sullivan