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turbulent winds airplane flight
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Airlines are concerned over an increase in the number of turbulence incidents on flights, leading to passenger and crew injuries.

Speaking at the headquarters of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Geneva, Gilberto López Meyer, Senior Vice President, Safety and Flight Operations shared some troubling statistics related to this meteorological phenomenon.

Air travel is still the safest form of travel in the world, and the industry’s accident rate continues to be low (at only 1.2 accidents for each million flight sectors flown in 2017), but turbulence is on the rise. And it is the leading global cause of injuries to airline passengers and crew.

“An airline with 100 aircraft could expect between 30 and 50 turbulence events per annum, potentially resulting to injuries to passengers and cabin crew, and eventually to the aircraft also,” López Meyer said. “Some studies suggest that the frequency and the strength of severe turbulence is forecast to increase in the coming years due to climate change.”

The main problem airlines face is that the current tools that help pilots avoid turbulence can’t provide objective real-time information.

Pilots have different tools that help them predict when their flight path may run into trouble. These include weather reports as well as special reports from other flight crews which have encountered turbulence. Unfortunately, this information is incomplete. Weather reporting cannot predict all turbulence along a flight path, and reporting from pilots is not a reliable guide.

“You feel the turbulence on an aircraft depending on two factors: one is the type of aircraft — the turbulence is not felt the same in different types of aircraft,” said López Meyer. “The other is the speed [at which the aircraft is flying] at the moment [it encounters turbulence.] It is very subjective, to a specific time and place.”

Radar can help guide pilots, too, when there is trouble ahead, but only for the type of turbulence caused by thunderstorms, which will show up on radar systems. Weather forecasts may not be up-to-date by the time a plane reaches a location.

“We have not managed to capture significant global coverage of this problem, with the availability of [real-time] turbulence reports to automatically prevent turbulence incidents,” López Meyer said.

To fill these gaps, IATA is developing the framework for a turbulence sharing platform, working with multiple airlines and industry stakeholders. IATA has also launched an initiative to improve weather forecast data, working with the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) which already collects airborne real-time data of wind and temperature from the aircraft of approximately 40 airlines globally.

“After satellite-based observation, this is the next most important source of data for forecasting weather at a global level,” López Meyer said. “Unfortunately, due to the limited number of participating airlines, many areas of the world have no cooperation, resulting in sub-optimal weather forecasts and subsequently inaccurate flight planning. IATA has signed a working arrangement with WMO to develop a framework for program expansion.”

Better insights on weather patterns will also help airlines plan their flight paths with greater accuracy, resulting in fewer diversions, and optimizing the fuel that aircraft burn. In effect, better insights on turbulence can help airlines reduce their impact on the environment, decreasing aircraft CO2 emissions.

Some aircraft are already equipped with advanced systems which can help detect turbulence, even when it’s invisible.

“The biggest problem is with clear air turbulence. That is turbulence that is not associated with thunderstorms or clouds. It is very difficult for the weather radar to detect this type of turbulence,” López Meyer told Travel + Leisure. “Modern aircraft, like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, and some others, have technology already available to measure this turbulence and transmit that information to the ground. Some airlines are already doing that.”

“So the systems and the capabilities are already there, but we are not taking full advantage of that. Airlines are using that information on an airline scale but not on a global scale. The effort that we are doing with this program is that we have the ability in IATA to integrate the information coming from many airlines to really provide the flight crews globally with real-time information.”

IATA’s Turbulence Solution will be developed throughout 2018, with a planned launch in 2019.