Temperatures around the United States have been unusually hot. So hot, that NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) proclaimed July 2012 the hottest month since 1895, when recordkeeping of temperatures in the United States began.
And so hot that on July 6th, when thermometers in Washington, D.C. reached 100 degrees, a regional US Airways jet bound for Charleston, S.C. left three hours late because the plane’s wheels got stuck in a soft spot in pavement at the airport.
“We tried to have our tug pull the plane out and it wouldn’t budge,” said US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. “We took all the passengers and all the baggage off the plane and tried again. It still wouldn’t budge. We got a larger tug vehicle and broke it free and the plane finally left for Charleston.”
News reports said the plane was stuck on the tarmac. “But that wasn’t true,” said Rob Yingling, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “All the runways, taxiways and gate area surfaces at the airport meet or exceed FAA specifications.” He said the problem was that the airline had parked the airplane on an area of older asphalt pavement not normally used for aircraft parking. “It was there for an extended period of time, at the hottest part of the day, on one of the hottest days of the year, and it formed a rut,” said Yingling, who noted that US Airways will be getting a bill for repairs.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, around 40% of all fight delays are caused by weather. And while flight delays due to mushy pavement are rare, delays and cancellations due to thunderstorms, lightning, and heavy downpours are far more common. Winter storms cause plenty of headaches, but summer weather can be far more problematic.
“Winter storms tend to be slow forming and don’t cover a great swatch of area. But in summer, convective weather is different. Storms can spring up very quickly and encompass huge swaths of land,” said an FAA spokesperson.
“Another ‘advantage’ of a winter storm is that airlines can take proactive measures and cancel flights ahead of time. But in the summer, you get pop-up thunderstorms and you don’t know if they’re going to be in your area or not,” said Mike Nonnemacher, director of operations for the Broward County Aviation Department, which operates Fort Lauderdale International Airport.
Nonnemacher said this summer’s weather hasn’t been out of the ordinary in southern Florida, but he remembers one “unbelievable” thunderstorm in 2003 that dumped more than nine inches of rain on the airport in two hours and several occasions when the airport had to close down due to hurricanes.
Preparing for summer weather
Like many airports around the country there’s a daily briefing every morning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to talk about the weather. “We talk to air traffic control. We talk to the airlines. We compare forecasts and we try to figure out if we’re going to be effected by convective weather,” said Paul Sichko, the airport’s assistant director of operations. “Then we try to plan accordingly.”
And there are many aspects of airport operations that need to be considered. “Things like refueling, baggage handling, and aircraft preparations can be halted or disrupted if lightning occurs within a radius around the airport, often around 10 miles,” said Chris Herbster, an associate professor of Applied Meteorology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach, FL campus. He said thunderstorms have to be taken seriously “given the potential for a strong downdraft or strong, gusty surface winds that can severely impact an aircraft while landing or taking off.”
Herbster said excessive heat presents another set of challenges for airport operations. “There are heat issues for the workers on the hot tarmac surfaces. The temperature there can be much higher than the reported air temperature – which is measured over a grassy area – due to the increased heating of the dark asphalt surface. These extreme work conditions can be life threatening to those that are outside working on all aspects of aircraft preparations,” he said.
What do passengers need to know?
Herbster and others say passengers should check the weather forecast for their departure, connecting and terminating airports and keep in mind that a flight can be delayed when a connecting aircraft, flight crew or cabin crew is detained by weather that may seem to have nothing to do with their itinerary.
The best way to avoid delays created by summer weather is to book flights early in the day, before the day’s heat begins to create problems with convection. “And try to avoid airports that have a reputation for weather delays if at all possible,” said Herbster.
If your flight is delayed due to a thunderstorm or heavy rain, “it’s always for safety,” said MSP’s Sichko. “Try to keep a ‘glass is half full’ perspective,” said Herbster, “A ground delay may be what is needed to keep things from getting really backed up at the airport you’re heading to.”
Above all, don’t forget that “Mother nature is a formidable opponent,” said Sichko. “She must be respected at all times.”
And in the summer, that respect may come in the form of delayed, rerouted or canceled flights.
(My story Airports and Travelers Deal with Summer Weather first appeared on USATODAY.com in my At the Airport column.)