Cutting turbulence toll in half: here’s how it works

July 04, 2016

It’s the stealthy hazard aloft, the one that goes bump in the night, the one that causes you to seize your seat’s armrest till the knuckles turn white.

It’s turbulence—either the kind generated by storms or the less obvious, but rattling, Clear Air Turbulence (C.A.T). Either way, it costs airlines some US$100 million each year in injuries to passengers and crew as well as unscheduled maintenance, operational inefficiencies and money lost while aircraft are out of service.

Recently, revealed a breakthrough system that’s cut the toll exacted by turbulence in half among aircraft equipped with the system. Now we’ll tell you just how it works.

At least five major international airlines—American, Alaska, United, Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon (formerly Dragonair)—have at least some of their jets fitted with the system developed by The Weather Company, an IBM Business. Partnering with Gogo Business Aviation, the set-up enables the delivery of real-time turbulence reports and alerts directly to pilots and airline dispatchers. The aim is to greatly improve an aircraft’s chances of avoiding moderate to severe turbulence.

Traditionally, flight operations, pilots and aviation meteorologists have received coded verbal reports—reports containing limited information on actual, real-time flight conditions—via pilot reports, or PIREPS. Now, the Weather Company and Gogo contend their Turbulence Auto PIREP System (TAPS) can communicate critical en-route weather information far faster.

To find out how TAPS fast tracks that information talked to Mark D. Miller, senior vice president of aviation for The Weather Company. He says, so far, the system’s two launch customers, American and Alaska Airlines, have seen a “40 percent to 50 percent reductions in injuries and maintenance expenses” by better avoidance of bad air.

Existing aircraft sensors that track angle of attack, altitude, airspeed, pitch, yaw, roll and other flight parameters feed that information into the ACMS—the Aircraft Condition Monitoring System. That’s where Miller says the data are encoded into his company’s proprietary algorithms.

From there, the encoded data is –in most cases—sent to the aircraft’s ACARS system. The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System is a digital datalink for transmitting messages between aircraft and ground stations, often via satellite. “We transform that [data] into very specific operational guidance,” he says. Sometimes that’s a Significant Meteorological Information or SIGMET.

Regardless the raw data is processed and Flight Plan Guidance is the product.  “Basically, for the next 24 hours the heads up “provides the pilot and the [airline dispatcher] a complete picture of where they can expect to find turbulence en-route,” says Miller. As for updates, “We have a very robust alerting back end” of the system, “that’s continually monitoring all these flights and your flight plan. If we see any new [turbulence] report or forecast that may affect the flight, we can alert that aircraft directly.”

Flight Plans are important, but it’s immediacy that can often be the difference between broken bones and barely discernable light chop. Miller says the turn-time between the moment ACARS sends the turbulence message to the ground and the potentially-affected aircraft is warned ranges from ten seconds to a minute, “depending on the communications pathway. It happens very quickly,” asserts The Weather Company’s senior vice president for aviation—from initial turbulence detection, to report, to information received on the ground and distributed back out.

In this case, speed saves—avoiding injuries and schedule-crippling unplanned maintenance. “In these situations, minutes can matter,” says Miller. Especially when a flying machine is moving along at four- to five-hundred miles per hour.

It’s got to be noted that this is a private solution to a very public problem. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is in talks says Miller about “getting this data into some of their systems, and I think—over time—that will come.” “But,” he cautions “FAA does not make these kind of changes quickly and readily.”

In contrast, airlines can move with comparative speed on their own. Not only are at least five carriers already flying many of their aircraft with the system on-board, Miller says The Weather Company is “in the final stages” of talks with a major European carrier.

All told, so far, some 700 aircraft worldwide are fitted with the system.

The Total Turbulence system is no mere pipe dream, no futuristic prediction. It’s here right now, and already making a difference. It appears just how deep a dent it puts in turbulence injuries and damaged airplanes depends on how fast the airlines adopt it.