Improving Aviation by Revolutionizing Weather Forecasting

Improving Aviation by Revolutionizing Weather Forecasting

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Thursday, December 12, 2013 - 4:45pm


At Southwest Airlines, our Meteorology Team is small, but mighty. Our four-person Team helps to support the weather-related strategic decision process here at Southwest; however, we also are involved with many other industry efforts and projects. One example is our strong partnership with both Aeronautical Radio Incorporated (ARINC) and the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association (NOAA).

About five years ago, we were asked by ARINC and NOAA to participate in a particularly exciting initiative that had the potential to help revolutionize weather forecasting—gathering and reporting real-time atmospheric humidity information from our airplanes. Today, Southwest has water vapor sensing systems (WVSS-II) on 87 of our aircraft as part of this project, and it is truly benefiting the entire worldwide meteorology community.

For decades, meteorologists have routinely gathered wind, temperature, and humidity data (and continue to do so) via the use of weather balloons. These balloons, however, are launched just twice daily from fewer than 90 locations across the entire United States. These updates are not nearly frequent enough or in enough locations. It was the best we had to work with, due to both cost and technology limitations. What we needed was more data that was reported more often to produce better and more accurate forecasts. Updated temperature, wind, and humidity readings from the atmosphere are crucial during the forecasting process—especially during severe weather events and winter storms. The WVSS-II project provides an extremely cost-effective way to obtain this information that was not previously available. Through this public-private partnership, this data is available much sooner with far greater coverage. In fact, just over the past 24 hours, our 87 equipped airplanes have reported more than 40,000 weather observations.

A precise forecast is important to an airline in many ways, including the operation of flight schedules and ontime performance, as well as reducing flight diversions and efficiently handling cancellations. Forecasters can use WVSS-II data in many ways such as helping to determine fog formation and timing, marine layer depth, the changing level of atmospheric instability, and winter weather precipitation types. This data also is used in National Weather Service (NWS) forecast models and within local NWS offices across the country—all for the purpose of improving forecasts to help us all better prepare for weather events.

We are very excited to be part of their effort, and we continue to work with ARINC and NOAA to try and obtain funding for additional aircraft installations. It serves as a great example of how we can take advantage of technology and use the extensive Southwest flight schedule to truly advance the science of meteorology—something that benefits everyone.

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