Has the weather become too dangerous to risk flying?

The Air Asia 8501 crash is causing people to focus anxiously on severe weather as a new danger to flying.  It is not.  

The aviation industry has a deep understanding and respect for weather, built up over a century of continuous operations.  Authorities have used this knowledge to set conditions on airlines that enable aircraft to operate safely year-round.  These restrictions often limit flight operations.

I was asked on a TV interview on Tuesday whether an e-mailed weather briefing rather than a face-to-face briefing might be the cause of Air Asia’s fatal encounter with a thunderstorm.

I answered that it makes no difference.  It’s exactly the same report, and pilots are trained to interpret that information.  Before a flight, a pilot receives a comprehensive weather briefing in a set format.  It tells the pilot three main things: the current and predicted weather at the departure airport, the en-route weather, and the weather at the destination.  Also anything else that might affect the flight, such as a volcanic eruption.

Of these, the destination weather is the most important for planning purposes.  The pilot will note the en-route weather, as diversions around predicted thunderstorms might require some extra fuel.  Air Asia 8501 indeed added some extra fuel.

I was dismayed to read in a national publication that American flyers are safer because U.S. airports stop flying when dangerous thunderstorms cross the flight routes, whereas Asian ones simply keep operating.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

U.S. airports, as do airports worldwide, stop flying when there are thunderstorms in the vicinity of the airport that will affect flight operations at that airport.

No airport holds flights because there is bad en-route weather, and the reason is quite clear: an airway is not like a road, which you have no choice but to stay on.  There is a lot of space up there!

A pilot can always turn many miles left or right of track to avoid thunderstorms.  There is never no choice except to fly into a dangerous cell.  If pilots cannot get Air Traffic clearance to avoid a thunderstorm, they can simply announce their intent and do it anyway.  They may not, however, change altitude without clearance, but it is extremely dangerous to try to climb over a thunderstorm.

All commercial aircraft have weather radar, which can search up to 300 miles ahead and whose main purpose is to look for thunderstorms.  Avoiding weather is a routine part of aviation that takes place every single day, year after year.  A pilot can always find a way around dangerous storms.                  

It has yet to be explained how Air Asia flew itself into an en-route thunderstorm, but it is not representative of commercial aviation that operates safely in all weather conditions year after year.

Rob Schapiro is a retired 747 airline captain with 34 years' military/civil aviation experience.

The Air Asia 8501 crash is causing people to focus anxiously on severe weather as a new danger to flying.  It is not.  

The aviation industry has a deep understanding and respect for weather, built up over a century of continuous operations.  Authorities have used this knowledge to set conditions on airlines that enable aircraft to operate safely year-round.  These restrictions often limit flight operations.

I was asked on a TV interview on Tuesday whether an e-mailed weather briefing rather than a face-to-face briefing might be the cause of Air Asia’s fatal encounter with a thunderstorm.

I answered that it makes no difference.  It’s exactly the same report, and pilots are trained to interpret that information.  Before a flight, a pilot receives a comprehensive weather briefing in a set format.  It tells the pilot three main things: the current and predicted weather at the departure airport, the en-route weather, and the weather at the destination.  Also anything else that might affect the flight, such as a volcanic eruption.

Of these, the destination weather is the most important for planning purposes.  The pilot will note the en-route weather, as diversions around predicted thunderstorms might require some extra fuel.  Air Asia 8501 indeed added some extra fuel.

I was dismayed to read in a national publication that American flyers are safer because U.S. airports stop flying when dangerous thunderstorms cross the flight routes, whereas Asian ones simply keep operating.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

U.S. airports, as do airports worldwide, stop flying when there are thunderstorms in the vicinity of the airport that will affect flight operations at that airport.

No airport holds flights because there is bad en-route weather, and the reason is quite clear: an airway is not like a road, which you have no choice but to stay on.  There is a lot of space up there!

A pilot can always turn many miles left or right of track to avoid thunderstorms.  There is never no choice except to fly into a dangerous cell.  If pilots cannot get Air Traffic clearance to avoid a thunderstorm, they can simply announce their intent and do it anyway.  They may not, however, change altitude without clearance, but it is extremely dangerous to try to climb over a thunderstorm.

All commercial aircraft have weather radar, which can search up to 300 miles ahead and whose main purpose is to look for thunderstorms.  Avoiding weather is a routine part of aviation that takes place every single day, year after year.  A pilot can always find a way around dangerous storms.                  

It has yet to be explained how Air Asia flew itself into an en-route thunderstorm, but it is not representative of commercial aviation that operates safely in all weather conditions year after year.

Rob Schapiro is a retired 747 airline captain with 34 years' military/civil aviation experience.