Those planning to travel by air this winter were lucky to get off the ground. Thanks to a series of storms, airlines across the country canceled more than 75,000 flights this winter.
To some extent, weather delays are an inevitable part of air travel. But a great many of this winter’s setbacks may have been avoided had the Federal Aviation Administration been using the most up-to-date weather-tracking technology. Yet the agency continues to rely on outmoded systems for predicting weather patterns.
Agency leaders can address this problem by agreeing to fund long-promised NextGen Weather programs. This will make air travel safer, more reliable and much more cost effective.
Unexpected weather continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing the aviation industry. According to the FAA, weather is the main cause of fully 23 percent of aviation accidents worldwide.
Even when unforeseen weather doesn’t threaten lives, it can still make air travel treacherous. If you’ve ever been stranded at an airport on your way to a vacation, extreme weather was likely the reason. Between 2003 and 2012, weather was behind some 68 percent of delayed flights.
The recent barrage of winter storms across the country provide the latest examples of how inclement weather can foil even the best-laid travel plans. In February alone, more than 151,000 flights were delayed around the country, while another 31,000 were canceled altogether. On March 5, more than one in five U.S. flights were cancelled because of snow.
Such delays aren’t just frustrating; they’re expensive. According to an FAA-commissioned report, delays cost airlines an estimated $8 billion a year. Passengers pay an even higher price when flight schedules go to pieces. Indeed, the same FAA report found that delays cost air travelers nearly $17 billion a year.
Given these high costs, one would think the FAA would be using every tool at its disposal to keep cancellations and delays to a minimum. In fact, the agency still depends on out-of-date technologies when predicting the weather.
The much-anticipated modernization of the FAA’s weather infrastructure, meanwhile, remains behind schedule. This upgrade — which is part of a broader FAA overhaul known as NextGen — would not only improve the quality of weather data available to the FAA, but also the manner in which it is disseminated.
NextGen Weather programs were supposed to be up-and-running by 2012. But while the agency has moved ahead with the other components of NextGen, the new weather infrastructure has yet to come on-line.
The benefits of such an upgrade would be enormous. For starters, there’s the issue of safety, as an improved forecasting system would make weather-related accidents far less likely.
At the same time, NextGen could significantly cut down on flight delays. By the FAA’s own admission, two-thirds of weather-related delays could be prevented with better weather information.
Fewer delays would translate quickly into cost savings. The agency estimates that adopting the most state-of-the-art weather technology could save airlines and passengers $290 million a year.
The wider economic impact of NextGen Weather would be even greater. According to a report from the FAA-backed research consortium NEXTOR, flight delays reduce the nation’s gross domestic product by some $4 billion a year. The inefficiencies created by delays, after all, add to the operating costs of businesses throughout the economy.
The ripple effects don’t stop there. By reducing the demand for air travel, the prevalence of flight delays can leave Americans more likely to travel by car.
As the NEXTOR report found, this shift to automobile travel “generates congestion costs on other road users and environmental costs on society at large.” The society-wide costs from decreased airline demand, the study estimates, totals nearly $4 billion.
Meanwhile, the technology required to make flying safer, cheaper, and more efficient already exists. All that’s needed is for the FAA to fully fund NextGen Weather’s implementation. Frustrated travelers — and our economy — have waited long enough.
Earnest recently retired from United Airlines following a more than 36-year career.