Is that a tropical storm you’re flying through, or just the dude sat in 16C blasting a thrash metal mix out of his earplugs? Wait - surely it’s not safe to fly through a tropical storm?!
Snow, fog, storm, wind. This article explains how aviation weather affects commercial flights and air charters. Spoiler: private air charters are less affected by extreme weather and it’s extremely rare you must change your flight plans.
HOW AVIATION WEATHER DOES AND DOESN’T AFFECT YOUR FLIGHT
When Hurricane Michael is on the radar it makes sense not to fly. But there’s more to safe flying than swerving a monstrous tropical storm. SFO only averages two thunderstorms a year yet 25,061 of its commercial flights were delayed due to weather in 2016.
Aviation weather can kick you in the face when you least need it to. One moment you’re about to fly. The next moment the flight has been cancelled, there’s no recourse with the airline, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The statistics are staggering. According to a 2010 Berkeley Study, domestic flight delays cost the US economy a staggering $32.9 billion per year. Over 1% of all US flights are delayed because of aviation weather. Why? And what does that mean for your flight?
Aviation Weather and Your Flight
It’s extremely rare that weather is problem once you are in the air. Remember, aircraft are designed to operate in the sky. They can maneuver themselves around inclement aviation weather. Usually it’s taking off that can affect your flight, along with the backlog that occurs when an airport or airline goes offline.
Ice, Snow & Blizzard Conditions
Blizzard conditions never look good but aircraft are designed to cope in sub-zero temperatures. It’s always going to be cold at 30,000 feet and almost all aircraft are designed to withstand -110℉. Snow on the ground isn’t too much of a challenge and it’s much quicker clearing a runway than clearing a highway. Sure, it can look a little scary, glancing out of the window to see ground staff slipping on ice. Those humongous de-icing machines blasting mist over the wings are also a little disconcerting. But as long as the runway and taxiway are clear, aircraft are able to take off.
There’s always a solution for snowy and icy conditions. De-icing is a legal requirement and will take place when the pilot or ground staff see ice sticking anywhere on the aircraft. How your flight is affected depends on how quickly the airline and airport de-ice and clear the runway.
Most private jets are kept in hangars overnight, so isn’t as much ice to clear compared to a large commercial jet. It’s relatively straightforward for an airport FBO to get ten aircraft de-iced on a morning. Just imagine the mid-winter operation at Chicago O’Hare, where one plane is taking off every 1 ½ minutes and there’s over-demand for the de-icing team.
Unless it’s accompanied by very heavy winds or severely reduced visibility, it’s rare that rain will affect your flight. Some private jets have windscreen wipers. Gulfstream aircraft have a hydrophobic windshield. Other aircraft use a pressurized air system to blow rain off the windshield. Unless the runway or taxiway becomes flooded, a rain-dominated forecast isn’t going to interrupt your travel plans.
Clouds and storms are a bigger challenge on the aviation weather radar. Thick clusters of cumulonimbus clouds can cause heavy downpours and unsettled flying conditions. Flying through clouds often causes turbulence, as you have probably experienced on countless flights. However, turbulence is uncomfortable rather than dangerous. Your drink may spill, but airplanes are designed to travel through the sky so they can handle a significant rainstorm. They’re not going to spring a leak like that studio apartment you rented back in college.
Some part of logic would suggest that smaller, lighter planes are greater affected by turbulent clouds. Not true. Private jets tend to be smaller than larger commercial planes. Yet they are more agile and easier to maneuver, plus have more flexibility about the flight path they take. When compared to large commercial aircraft it’s usually much simpler for a private jet to fly around or over the clouds. Private jets can ascend quicker than commercial planes, getting you above the clouds sooner. Then when coming out of the clouds that agility makes it easier to land in rougher conditions.
Thunderstorms don’t look promising but they shouldn’t affect your flight. Pilots shouldn’t be flying within 20 miles of an intense thunderstorm and there are plenty of movies showing the apocalyptic effects of flying through a storm - surely none as bad as the 2014 epic Airplane vs Volcano (yes, that is a real movie, we don’t recommend wasting 90 minutes on it but the trailer is pretty amusing). As mentioned earlier, airplanes are designed to negotiate the sky. Pretty much every US airline gets at least one direct lighting strike per year - if that was a safety issue you would already know about it.
Pilots need to negotiate their way around and sometimes through thunderstorms. Once again, smaller, more agile planes have more maneuverability so they won’t fly headstrong into a storm. When you charter a plane, pilots can use the weather radar to steer around danger and can reroute where necessary. That’s not as easy for commercial airlines.
If an airport is beneath a thunderstorm then a pilot can’t take off or land. Severe electrical storms can close down airports for hours at a time. Commercial flights into that airport will be cancelled or heavily delayed. Private jets also won’t be able to land. However, an air charter pilot has the flexibility to reroute and touch down at the closest open airport, so a storm is an inconvenience rather than a cancellation.
Strong winds will affect flight time, especially on long-distance flights. The difference between a headwind and tailwind can be an hour on a transatlantic flight, although for most flights the time changes are negligible.
Cross winds make landing a little trickier but that’s why pilots must have so many flying hours; so they have the necessary experience to mitigate against strong wind. Most airports have runways in multiple directions, so the pilot can land into the wind. If the wind really has gone beyond a safe speed the airport will close until it calms - being able to land at a different airport is advantageous in these situations.
Obviously no pilot is going to take you into a tornado. They will just fly around it, or most likely above it. Hurricanes are a lot larger and harder to avoid. Airports may be closed for days or even weeks. Large chunks of airspace become unflyable. When hurricanes or extremely high winds come around it’s inevitable that commercial travelers are grounded. However, the flexibility of a private air charter allows for re-routing and alternate travel plans.
Fog and Visibility
Fog is the worst of all aviation weather, as it’s patchy and ever-changing. It’s hard to land a plane when you can’t see the runway, so when the visibility drops below one mile airports implement LVP (Low Visibility Procedures). That means reducing the number of aircraft out on the runways. That means some (often half) of the aircraft must wait. This creates backlog and delays, sometimes for many days at a time.
Fog is the reason SFO has more weather delayed flights than any other US airport - averaging out at 68 per day. Low clouds and fog hang over the city and when that misty layer is persistent it’s rare to find a flight leaving on time. The airport doesn’t help itself though. The parallel runways are only 750-feet apart and the FAA doesn’t allow planes to land on side-by-side runways when visibility is low.
Once you’re up in the air you are soon above the clouds. So just like ice and snow, fog is only really a factor on take off and landing. Again, commercial flights are more likely to be affected as there is far less flexibility in their scheduling. If SFO is suffering delays a private jet pilot can reroute, even after they are in the air. So you may land at Oakland or San Jose instead.
If Weather Shouldn’t Be a Factor, Why Are So Many Flights Delayed Because Of It?
It’s only in very rare circumstances that aviation weather will affect a flight. Airports hate to close as it costs them money. Most will only be closed for a few hours a year. So why are 1% of all domestic commercial flights delayed by weather? Backlog. That’s the painful word. When the weather is bad everyone must take precautions, from de-icing to reducing the number of planes on the runway.
A sustained smell of dense fog means arrivals and departures must be staggered. Hundreds of flights are delayed because it takes an extra hour to clear a runway of ice. Snowstorms can cripple an airport for days at a time. Slow-moving thunderstorms push back flight schedules. When the cloud ceiling drops below 700 feet delays are inevitable, even when the sky is completely clear later in the day.
In most cases the aviation weather isn’t directly affecting your flight. It affected flights scheduled for earlier in the day. Flights were cancelled or delayed and the knock-on effect can be felt for days to come. Unfortunately, many of the major US airports are running at +90% capacity, so there’s no flexibility in the system for bad weather.
What Happens When Weather Affects My Commercial Flight
Large airports and commercial airlines have very little room for maneuver. But they do have a solid legal footing. Passengers don’t need to be compensated if a flight is delayed or cancelled due to circumstances beyond an airlines’ control. Inclement weather is considered one of those circumstances.
If your commercial flight is cancelled the airline must provide you with a full refund, or endeavor to book you on a later flight. Unfortunately, there are rarely enough seats to book a plane full of passengers on another flight. If multiple flights are cancelled a commercial airline really struggles to reroute its passengers. So you end up stranded.
When the airline uses the weather card they also don’t owe you anything. No hotel, no meal voucher, nothing except a full refund on the ticket: which is useless when you really need to be somewhere.
The Flexibility of Private Air Charters
Style of Airport
It’s rare that air charters are flying in and out of large overcapacity airports. It’s more likely they are taking off from FBOs at regional airports. While these airports are smaller they are better equipped to deal with bad aviation weather, simply because they are smaller. As mentioned, it’s easier to de-ice ten planes then over a hundred.
Commercial flights have set schedules. The pilot is unable to re-route unless in an emergency. Why? Well, that aircraft landing at SFO has to fly to LAX two hours later. So if the aircraft landed in Oakland it would mean cancelling a flight full of SFO to LAX passengers.
Private jets pilots can reroute in the air to avoid aviation weather and closed airports. They don’t have such a fixed schedule and it’s very common for them to reroute.
Charter a plane and it’s your plane. You are the only passenger, or you have personally invited all the other passengers. The pilot will discuss different rerouting options with you. So rather than a message over the tannoy you have a say in where the plane is rerouted to. Ground transport can be pre-arranged as well. So you land in Oakland instead of SFO but have a vehicle waiting upon arrival. It does mean a slightly longer journey when factoring the transfer time. However, that’s significantly better than a cancellation or multi-day delay.
With a private air charter you can make changes to your flight, right up to 15 minutes before departure. Perhaps inclement weather isn’t affecting your journey, but it is affecting the destination you want to visit. So rather than that ski weekend in blizzard conditions, you reroute and head to a southern beach instead.
Booking a Private Air Charter
Airvel is the leading marketplace for private air charter. Instantly search thousands of FAA-approved aircraft with a single click. Compare prices and options. Pay and then fly. That’s the best way to ensure aviation weather doesn’t affect your travel plans.