A Skier’s Guide to El Niño

Weather Forecasts Are Getting Better

We tend to think of weather-forecast accuracy in terms of raw numbers, but getting a good forecast is about so much more than that. The timing of severe thunderstorms can determine whether flights safely land and take off. A subtle shift in the rain-snow line makes the difference between a dreary day and slick, useless runways.

The accuracy of weather models has steadily improved over the years; they’re so accurate now that high-resolution models can sometimes nail the precise location of individual thunderstorms hours before they form. This improved accuracy is an incredible boon to airlines, helping them route flights around or before hazardous weather like snowstorms or hurricanes.

Satellite and Radar See What We Can’t

We can see clouds on the horizon, but weather satellites and Doppler radar let us see inside storms. The United States’s brand-new weather satellites let us watch storms develop in real-time. Doppler radar spies on the inner-workings of a thunderstorm, helping us spot a hail core or dangerous winds.

Commercial airplanes have built-in weather radar that lets pilots see inside the clouds ahead of them. This enables pilots to determine whether to go through or around that ominous-looking thunderstorm cell.

Better Training Helps Pilots Prepare for the Unexpected

There hasn’t been a deadly crash of a U.S.-based commercial airliner in nearly a decade. The last major crash (aside from a tragic fluke incident in 2017) occurred in February 2009 near Buffalo, New York, after ice developed on a commuter plane’s wings as it approached the airport. The ice caused the airplane to lose its lift and stall, something the fatigued pilots didn’t respond to correctly.

Pilot training, experience, and adequate rest are significant topics of debate in airline safety. All the weather-related safety improvements in the world don’t matter unless the pilot is in control of the plane. Unfortunately, things usually don’t change until after a crash. That 2009 accident led airlines to revise their training and written procedures to deal with icing and stalls, and it led to new regulations that ensure pilots are well-rested before they take flight.

Wind-Shear Detection Changed the Game

Aside from icing, the most serious threat to the average flight is wind shear—wind changing speed and direction. Airplanes take off and land into the wind. If the wind suddenly shifts around, the airplane will just as suddenly lose airspeed. If the plane is flying near its lower limits, this sudden loss of airspeed can cause a stall and potentially a crash.

This is a major problem with thunderstorms. Airplanes crashing due to wind shear or microbursts—sudden downward bursts of wind from the base of thunderstorms—was a serious issue as late as the 1990s. Ted Fujita, famous for his eponymous scale to estimate the strength of tornadoes, was instrumental in studies of wind shear and microbursts. Research led by Fujita and others led to the development of wind-shear detection systems that warn vulnerable flights of hazardous conditions ahead, making accidents caused by thunderstorms exceptionally rare in recent decades.

We’ve Made Better Instruments for Low-Visibility Flying

Driving when it’s foggy is hard, but flying in low-visibility conditions is even more challenging. Thankfully, pilots have a slew of instruments at their disposal that helps them see what’s ahead of them even if they can’t really see it at all.

Most major airports are equipped with Instrument Landing Systems that allow airplanes to track radio frequencies that guide them along a safe glidepath to the runway. Many modern airliners have displays in the cockpit that shows the flight crew the terrain around the airplane, helping them avoid terrain like hills and mountains. Procedures also require pilots to follow limits that bar them from landing if they can’t see the runway by a certain altitude along their approach.

Those Annoying Delays and Cancellations Can Be Life-Savers

As many of us get ready to travel for family visits and outdoor adventures, sitting in an airport in a sunny town while it snows like crazy a thousand miles away can make you feel angry and helpless. But those flight delays and cancellations usually serve a good purpose: they save lives.

No matter how many improvements we make, airplanes just can’t fly in certain types of weather. Airports have to slow down operations when the visibility is low or the runways are too slick to allow for normal operations. An airplane slid off the runway at New York-LaGuardia in 2015 in part because the pilot overreacted to a coating of snow on the runway.

Delays and cancellations can have massive ripple effects across the country, but those flights are scrubbed for your safety. Airlines care about profits, sure, but they don’t want to see airplanes full of people put in danger just to keep their numbers up. Most of us will get where we need to go smoothly this winter. So take a deep breath and know that you’re in good hands when you take flight—even if it’s a little later than you expected.