Is it safe to fly in bad weather?

Adonis Manzan, Typhoon Specialist | March 12, 2019

Technological advances in the past century have really made flying a preferred a way to travel long distances — whether it be day or night, even in rain or sunshine. But have you ever experienced a really rough ride, one that, maybe, made you stop and wonder, is it really safe to fly in poor weather?

What is an ITCZ?

We often refer to the severe weather experience in-flight as “turbulence” and this is actually caused by another familiar phenomenon: the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ). The ITCZ is called the “meteorological equator” where a huge convective cell of active cumulonimbus clouds that produce intense lightning and thunder activities can be found. In the Northern Hemisphere, particularly along the equator, these massive bands of strong thunderstorms can produce areas of low pressure, which, under ripe conditions, can spawn a full-fledged tropical cyclone.

The ITCZ is a breeding ground for these violent storms, which brings in atmospheric temperatures to as low as -80 degrees Celsius, as cold as the coldest winter in Antarctica or the temperature 53,000 feet into the atmosphere. Given this, people don’t fully realize the terrific amount of turbulence the ITCZ may bring, which can make flying into the storm potentially very difficult and dangerous.

In aviation, flying through massive thunderstorms can cause icing in an airplane’s most sensitive piece of equipment called pitot probesNormally, modern aircraft have three of these, just below the cockpit. This instrument measures fluid flow velocity, forward acceleration, or aircraft speed. According to John Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, it is suggested that if an aircraft flies through supercooled liquid water found over oceans, these little droplets are ready to freeze as soon as they hit the surface.

According to Alastair Rosenchein, a British aviation consultant and a former British Airways Boeing 747 pilot, pilots basically fly around thunderstorms in tropical areas due to work necessity, and storms form very fast. As airplanes cross the equator, storm clouds begin brewing over the Java Sean (in Indonesia) below. Rosenchein added that pilots can see a thunderstorm ahead or below, and the very few minutes it takes for airplanes to get there, storms could already climb several thousand feet about the aircraft.

How safe is flying?

However, despite all weather processes going on, flying remains surprisingly safe for airplane passengers. In 2017 alone, about 4.1 billion passengers traveled by air worldwide with 50 fatalities for scheduled commercial departures, marking 2017 as the safest year ever on the record for the aviation industry, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The global fatality rate of 12.2 per billion passengers surely pointed out that flying is still the safest mode of transportation anywhere on the planet. (see Fig. 1)

The number of fatal accidents decreased to 5 to 7 in 2016, which is also the lowest level on the recent record. Despite a spike in fatalities due to the number of acts of unlawful interference in 2014 and the tragic events which caused significant loss of life in 2015, there was a general trend of a lower number of fatal accidents and fatalities in the past ten years. (see Fig. 2)


Fig. 2. The table indicates a steady decline in the number of fatalities associated with commercial air accidents during scheduled commercial flights beginning in 2008 through 2017. Courtesy: ICAO Report


Greatest moments in flight

The fascinating world of aviation continues to thrive for 105 years today since its first scheduled commercial airline flight.  It was on New Year’s Day 1914 when the first commercial flight was flown by infamous pilot Tony Jannus. He was the first pilot who flew into the historic flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line. However, this only lasted for about four months. It was entrepreneur Percival Fansler who envisioned the transcontinental flights back then. The remarkable undertaking was done in the United States during the early times of the aviation industry. Its legacy continues on today.

The global aviation industry has since grown rapidly, and with the steady growth markets in the Americas and Europe, the emergence of new technologies hastened the immense appetite for world travel. And with business booming, proven business models opened up new avenues for profitable markets. This rapid development of the aviation industry poses huge stresses for many states to cope with the growing demand for flying, and to balance such economic need with airline safety. This is where dangers lurk.

More travel hubs are opening in Asia alone and are considered as the new gateway for the rest of the globe, with millions more are taking into the skies than the last fifty years. According to recent worldwide air traffic data, the air traffic volume has since doubled for the past decade, and statistically, ICAO predicts that passenger turnaround will steadily increase by a 100% margin in the next 15 years. With this besetting the global aviation industry, the UN aviation agency is moving forward with innovative ways in addressing the rapid changes as it continues to provide safety oversight, which can help reduce the risks associated with the growing air traffic volume worldwide.

As the visions and innovations in the travel industry continues to bloom, the role that accurate weather plays in it is also growing. It is essential for the aviation sector to consider the accuracy of weather information when considering the logistics of each flight. Meanwhile, as passengers, it is also our responsibility to check on weather conditions before traveling. Luckily, we now have the WeatherPH app, available for free for both Android and iOS, to help us become more #WeatherWiser.

Interested about being #WeatherWiser? Contact us at weatherwiser@weatherph.org.