Summer Aviation Forecast: Sunny, and Slow

By Cheryl Albiez, Media Relations Staff

The sun is shining in a cloudless sky. Winds are calm, the runways are dry. Then comes the announcement: Your flight is delayed or canceled due to weather conditions.

Such cancellations are often due to circumstances that passengers cannot see—weather issues, for example, between the flight’s originating airport and its destination that can disrupt air travel when conditions outside seem perfect for flying.

Weather is the cause of 69 percent of air travel delays, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with May, June and July the peak periods of disruption. Poor weather conditions caused by summer thunderstorms, lightning and high winds can result in delays that compound quickly.

Huntley Lawrence

“Last year, weather was the No. 1 for delays, and 2017 was one of the worst in terms of weather impacts for airports in the northeast,” said Port Authority Aviation Director Huntley A. Lawrence, who also noted that delays can be caused by low clouds and poor visibility, while extreme heat can impact aircraft performance.

Because the Port Authority operates in the busiest and most complex airspace in the country, with three major airports (LaGuardia, Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy) as well as Stewart International Airport, and Teterboro Airport, summer air traffic delays are particularly problematic. Combined, these five airports support between 4,800-5,200 flight operations a day.

Lawrence said thunderstorms located even several hundred miles from the New York-New Jersey airspace can significantly reduce the “throughput” of Port Authority airports. A minor storm along a departure or arrival route can change that flight’s route by 50 to 100 miles or more, with associated delays often exceeding 90 minutes. The domino effect created by poor weather conditions in one area of the country can extend to many other airports.

Contrast the weather factors with other contributors to flight delays among all classes of aircraft, and the gap is significant. Higher passenger volume and added demand is cited by the FAA for 19 percent of delays. Runway unavailability causes six percent of delays, while equipment failure makes up one percent.

The Port Authority has invested nearly $200 million since 2008 on initiatives to reduce delays, including the installation of high-speed taxiways that help move planes faster on and off runways, and a traffic metering system at JFK that shortens wait times on the airfield. In addition, other planned initiatives include runway widening at JFK and the installation of a Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS)—a satellite-based precision landing system for improved airport access—at JFK and LaGuardia. The system already is operating at Newark Liberty.

“Despite all the improvements we’ve made on the ground, the efficiency of the national airspace is still lagging,” Lawrence said.

The Port Authority is part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) integration working group, comprising industry experts from the FAA, major airlines and the airports. Together, more than 100 recommendations to improve air traffic and reduce delays along the Northeast corridor, many of them focused on Port Authority airports, have been made.

Similar to a GPS-based system, NextGen evolves the nation’s air traffic control system from a radar-based system to a satellite-based system, enhancing efficiency and providing pilots with greater access to useful information, particularly during poor weather. NextGen also offers better and more precise communications across the airspace system, uses improved onboard technology, and standardizes access to weather information to help guide airplanes.

“All stakeholders—the Port Authority and hundreds of other airports, the FAA, the airlines, and other aviation industry leaders—are sharply focused on implementing improvements that will benefit our customers,” Lawrence said. “We’re all working toward a system that will help improve airspace efficiency by making flights shorter and more predictable. That ultimately will reduce the impact of weather delays.”

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