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Could There Be Less Turbulence in Our Flying Future?

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Pilots will soon have better information to help them avoid turbulence.

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Pilots will soon have better information to help them avoid turbulence.

For the first time, airlines plan to share more accurate turbulence data with the goal of making flying smoother and safer.

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Have you ever wondered what exactly causes turbulence and what can be done to avoid it? A recently launched initiative aims to make it much easier for airlines to share real-time turbulence data, which will in turn help pilots better avoid and prepare passengers for those inevitable bumps and drops.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the data that’s available to pilots right now is relatively subjective in nature, relying heavily on individual pilot reports. Those reports describe the severity of turbulence on a scale of light, moderate, or severe, which doesn’t allow for much detail or precision. The current reporting system also often has a time lag and doesn’t always offer the most precise location details.

To improve on that, IATA is developing a new Turbulence Aware program, which aims to be the first global, real-time information resource for managing turbulence. By collecting data from multiple airlines and resources into a single database, Turbulence Aware hopes to give airlines and pilots better tools for avoiding and preparing for turbulence. For instance, the Turbulence Aware data will be based on a calculated estimate of the atmosphere’s turbulent state (not just individual aircraft reports). It will also include detailed information regarding altitude, aircraft position, wind, and temperature.

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The program is currently running operational trials and 15 airlines have already signed on, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Japan Airlines, Swiss, and WestJet. Following feedback from those trials, Turbulence Aware is expected to fully launch in early 2020.

Climate change could make turbulence worse 

The Federal Aviation Administration defines turbulence as “air movement created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms.” According to the FAA, turbulence can crop up unexpectedly and can occur even in clear skies.

The challenge of managing turbulence is only expected to increase as climate change continues to impact weather patterns, noted IATA. The organization said that an added benefit of giving pilots the tools to find smoother air will be greater fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. 

It will also make flying safer. A fact sheet released last month by the FAA reported that 17 people were injured during turbulence in 2017 (the most recent year for which data was provided), compared with 42 people in 2016 and 27 people in 2015.

The best way to avoid those injuries is to better avoid turbulence, as well as for passengers to follow the pilots’ and crew’s safety instructions, the FAA advised.

>> Next: What Is Turbulence—and How Can Understanding It Help Anxious Flyers?

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