The bigger question – should we be fuelling for it?
Singapore think so
A recent article in FlightGlobal reports that the Singapore safety authorities are seeing a rising incidence of more intense storms.
This comes off the back of the final report for a Singapore Airlines 777 which landed with low fuel due to severe weather conditions. With significant weather all around the region, the crew initially elected to hold for an improvement at WSSS/Changi but conditions failed to improve. Eventually, a decision was made to divert to WIDD/Batam (Indonesia) but similar bad conditions led to a fuel mayday and low fuel landing.
TSIB (Singapore’s Transport Safety Investigation Bureau) said –
“It may be prudent for pilots to interpret operating procedures in a more conservative manner to conclude that landing at a scheduled designation is not assured if the air traffic controllers are not able to provide definitive updates. This will allow pilots to make an drier decision to diver, with higher safety margins.”
But what does this mean? We all (should) know the commit to land/landing assured definitions… So why did this happen and how can we follow their advice and do this better?
Staying ahead of the storm(s)
Fuel planning and monitoring is the best way to stay ahead of the storms, but in order to do this, an understanding of how those storms are developing is as important, and this is not necessarily occurring with the rapidity or level of awareness the changing trends require.
The more robust fuel programs (think your EASA Individual Fuel schemes) are great – they monitor statistical stuff* and build this into the plan, which means they will generally account for changing weather patterns year on year.
*Yes, that is my level of understanding of what goes into these.
But what about the less robust ones? The ones which leave it much more up to the pilot to chuck on another tonne or two if they think they need it? This is where things are potentially going wrong (or at least badly) because the Meteorology lessons us pilots learned in while wet behind the ears tend to be based on pretty archaic information.
The mistral is a strong, cold, northwestern wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion in the northern Mediterranean is a wonderful pub quiz fact…
But climates have changed since I wrote my ATPL theory exams some nearly two decades ago. Thankfully, I have had the benefit of working for airlines that took me all over the world so I could experience changing weather patterns all over the world, and have built up something of a ‘big picture’ of what I might encounter, where.
But that is not always considered in an operator’s fuel planning, and not all crew necessarily have that experience*
*That made me sound really pompous and ‘know it all’. I still have to google map a lot of places, and definitely am not experienced in worldwide weather trends. I also googled the definition of a mistral wind.
The point is – when crew do not feel they can trust the systems in place, or if they lack route experience, then it can lead to them ‘guesstimating’ their contingency and additional fuel requirements.
Only crew with significant experience on a specific route may have the understanding to make fully informed decisions both prior to departure, and during weather events. More often than not, pressure from operators to not carry more fuel than needed outweighs the rather wishy washy threat of a ‘maybe’ fuel event at the other end of the flight.
This means crew are finding the pressures of handling fuel safety vs fuel efficiency margins placed on their shoulders, but the weight of getting it wrong is often only felt when they are within a situation with limited mitigation options left available.
The Singapore 777 crew, presumably extremely experienced in operations to WSSS/Changi and in how quick storms might shift, elected to hold for a relatively extended time, citing “familiarity and a preference to land there” as major factors in their decision.
So, to help, here is a little ‘around the world’ tour of changing climates.. But what we REALLY need is:
- Increased information from airports on delays and disruption due weather* so we can build that big picture
- Improved guidance on fuel policies from our operators to help us manage fuel situations with safety over efficiency in mins
*YOU can share this right here – let us know/add to the forum/ comment below if you have experienced changing weather conditions that could potentially catch folk out.
Understand Changing Weather Trends
The North Atlantic
The North Atlantic Hurricane season is the one that brings the big, bad storms to the USA and surrounding region. While NOAA report that the mean intensity of hurricanes has not changed, they also report a larger proportion of storms reach major hurricane status (that’s category 3-5).
2020 saw the most active hurricane season on record (31 storms, 14 hurricanes). 2023 was initially forecast to be below average, but new modelling software led to NOAA revising it to a 60% chance of being above average (the average is 12 named storms and 3 major hurricanes, they predict 14-21 named, and 6-11 major). This will make it the eighth year in a row that’s been ‘above average’.
There has been a shift of ‘peak intensity location’ from the equator towards the pole in a westerly direction, and an increase in rapid intensification events.
What sort of horror is a ‘rapid intensification event?’ I hear you ask. Well, it is when a storm goes from zero to doom and destruction in a viciously quick time. It makes forecasting trajectories and severity/impact difficult, and when an intensification occurs close to landfall (as was the case with some major hurricanes in 2019 and 2020), it makes preparation challenging and tends to have greater disruption for aviation given our airports and busiest routes tend to be in those areas!
CAT is on the rise as well.
CAT over the North Atlantic region is also on the rise. This can lead to additional fuel requirements – optimum levels may be congested and unavailable, or re-routes due severe turbulence may be needed.
The USA is worth mentioning because they are seeing an increase in severe weather events across the country – both in terms of summer and winter weather.
The FAA recently published a piece ‘With Flood Water Rising, FAA Seeks to Help Airports Keep Afloat‘. It is all about building resilience at airports so they can better deal with increasingly hideous* weather.
*Not their word, they said ‘severe’. I think hideous sums it up better.
Take for example KFLL/Fort Lauderdale. They shut for several days after its runways were swampified in April 2023. Everyone said “A freak storm! Once in a lifetime weather!” Unfortunately, it is not though. Weather in Florida and coastal airports has become increasingly volatile, while landlocked airports like KIND/Indianapolis are seeing greater extremes in temperatures and rainfall.
Scientists studying the monsoon season across Asia report it is growing ‘more erratic, less dependable and even dangerous.’ Modelling suggests it is strengthening and total rainfall is rising, while heavy rainfall events are increasing at a rapid pace.
This is particularly impacting India and the Himalayan region, and represents a significant increase in risk of runway excursions as well as the general delays and disruption. In one state, there was a 431% increase in rainfall in one year.
Eurocontrol published a whole lot of info back in 2021 in their ‘Study on Climate Change risks for European aviation’.
One highlight is the increasingly common occurrences of extreme sudden rainfall and rising sea levels. Two-thirds of coastal or low-lying airports are expected to be at increased risk of flooding in the event of a storm surge which means, on these increasingly frequent days of mega rain, an increasing number of airports might see delays or closures.
Of course, if European airspace was still nice an empty with just the odd steam driven airplane* chugging through it, a quick detour around a solitary storm wouldn’t matter much. But those storms as bigger and more common, and that airspace is far more congested which leads to more aircraft needing detours more often, with detours generally being bigger and disruptions longer because of the higher traffic levels.
*No, I know airplanes weren’t steam driven
Horizontal and vertical path inefficiency leads to less fuel on arrival and less time to hold/attempt approaches in significant weather conditions.
Overall it’s a mixed bag of changes across Europe. If you want a better picture, read this (or read the conclusion which sums it up).
Stay Ahead of the Storm with a better ‘big picture’
Experience and knowledge of the local conditions is probably the best way to do this, but it means sharing the information and ensuring it is accessible to all operators and as importantly crew.
For those operating in the European region, Eurocontrol is one of your top resources. Their Network Operations Portal provides timely updates on delays and weather related situations.
If you’re heading to North America, then including the FAA’s Network Airspace System status into your route familiarisation might be handy – weather is generally the biggest cause of delay in the USA, particularly in the Florida and east coast regions which see mega storms in the summer, hurricanes through that season, and some of the most congested airspace in the region to boot.
Less thumb sucking by operators
Operators pulling figures out of the air because of limited knowledge, or worse – because of an unbalanced focus on minimising fuel costs – needs to end. Sadly, there remain airlines out there who pressure crew into carrying minimum fuel, some even going as far as publishing figures on where Captains lie in the league of ‘extra fuel’ added and these pressures can and do lead to serious safety events.
Fuel decisions need to lie with the crew because, ultimately, they are the ones who will be in the air dealing with the situation when they don’t have enough. But in order to do this, greater awareness, resources and knowledge need to be provided to them as well and right now, as an industry, this is not happening anywhere near as quickly as the climate change is impacting our operations.
More knowledge for crew
This means sharing that experience with other crew and reading up on changes rather than relying on information being handed to us. In doing so, we can all start to build up a better picture of how climate change is changing the climate and enable us to make fuel decisions based on this!
Whether or not climate change is believed, worsening weather patterns and more challenging climate related events are catching crew out so improving our own route knowledge willingly to serve us better.