When severe weather hits a major airport, flight cancelations may be unavoidable—but how can operators like Alaska Airlines help minimize disruption to passengers and keep more people moving?
By adopting near-real time flight tracking and monitoring, Alaska Airlines can make proactive operational decisions based on the predicted intensity, trajectory, duration and impact of severe weather.
Helpsto predict the likely impact of severe weather on key travel hubs
Optimizesschedules to help reduce the risk of delays and cancelations
Keepsmore passengers moving and limits disruption to onward journeys
Business challenge story
Staying in front of fast-changing weather
For Alaska Airlines, operating in extreme weather conditions is business as usual. From September to April, its crews in the last frontier must contend with harsh winter weather on an almost daily basis. Decades of experience with Alaskan winters has taught aviation professionals there how to deal with the toughest conditions—but what happens when a storm hits a lower latitude?
Mike Thynes, Dispatch Director at Alaska Airlines, explains: “Carriers and airports in Alaska face a constant battle against conditions like icing, runway contamination and poor visibility. Because Alaskans work in these conditions so frequently, they have the equipment to deliver round-the-clock services such as ploughing and de-icing—and it tends only to be the most serious storms that cause difficulties.
“For our operations in the lower 48, the impact of severe weather is very different. Because airports aren’t as used to working in these conditions, it’s practically impossible for them to maintain 100 percent throughput when a major snowstorm is bearing down on them.”
With passenger numbers growing explosively year-on-year, Alaska Airlines knew that even minor reductions in capacity at one of its hub airports could trigger a chain reaction of cancelations and delays elsewhere in its network.
“Our most significant hub is Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has seen unprecedented passenger growth in recent years,” continues Thynes. “If congestion starts to build up at Sea-Tac, it reduces our ability to position crews to operate flights elsewhere in the country—and the systemic effects become significant very quickly.
“In the past, weather data from the National Weather Service was usually sufficient for our flight planners. But as our business grew and Sea-Tac became busier, our scheduling challenges became more complex, and we needed to become more proactive. To keep more passengers moving when severe weather is on the horizon, we looked for a way to make informed decisions, faster.”
Making informed, proactive decisions
To enhance its decision-making capabilities, Alaska Airlines deployed integrated solutions for flight planning, tracking and monitoring based on WSI® Fusion from The Weather Company®, an IBM Business. Today, flight dispatchers and managers can see the positions, routes and fuel levels of their aircraft in near-real time, overlaid with accurate information on weather systems from both public and proprietary sources.
“The Weather Company’s Flight Plan Guidance data has become an integral part of our decision-making process,” says Thynes. “Capturing information from multiple sources is useful because it enables us to be more precise in our decision-making. For example, with SIGMETs [Significant Meteorological Information], The Weather Company solutions give us data at a high resolution, which helps us identify opportunities to burn less fuel by flying under or over the weather.”
The solutions also provide better situational awareness, helping dispatchers and flight crews respond to changing conditions in near-real time. As Thynes explains: “At any moment, we can see at a glance where our aircraft are, how much fuel they have on board, and the nearest airports—which helps us quickly weigh our options if we need to divert them around bad weather or turbulence.”
When severe storms hit the lower 48, Alaska Airlines now uses forecasts from The Weather Company to proactively optimize its schedules.
“The Weather Company gives our managers the 30,000-foot view: where severe weather will hit, and what the operational constraints will be,” Thynes continues. “If a snowstorm is forecast around Sea-Tac, we use snowfall predictions from The Weather Company to build a strategic plan to mitigate the impact—for example, by surgically removing flights to create circuit breakers in our schedule.
“We aim to cancel flights only when absolutely necessary. The Weather Company gives us the data we need to make those tough decisions, and be confident that we’re doing the right thing to minimize disruption for potentially thousands of customers.”
Keeping passengers moving in tough conditions
With accurate, timely insights from The Weather Company helping to support its decision-making processes, Alaska Airlines can respond proactively when adverse conditions are set to disrupt its hubs.
“In Seattle, we know from experience that bad weather will reduce the number of take-offs and landings possible in a 24-hour period—the only question is how many flights will be affected,” explains Thynes.
“Today, we use accurate hour-by-hour forecasts to predict the parts of the day that will be most congested, and adapt our schedules to run as many flights as we can. By taking this action, we help reduce the risk of unexpected delays grounding our crews and passengers. This strategy also makes it easier to position our crews, which reduces the knock-on effect of delays in other parts of our network. In particularly bad storms, these decisions can potentially save thousands of our passengers from the misery of flight cancelations.”
Lightning, turbulence, and volcanic ash cloud monitoring within WSI Fusion helps make it easier for Alaska Airlines to operate cost-efficiently and on time—whatever the weather.
“If you asked any of our people what the most important part of their job is, the answer would be safety every time,” Thynes continues. “From WSI Fusion, we can see TAPS [Turbulence Auto-PIREP System] and other PIREPs from our pilots and other carriers, as well as indicators like lightning, which signify a high risk of convection and turbulence. We can then assess the severity of the situation, and make an informed decision about whether a diversion is required.
“If one of our aircraft is flying toward weather systems that would be unsafe or uncomfortable to fly through, we can use WSI Fusion to help us determine the fastest and most cost-efficient diversion. For example, if we can see that jet stream turbulence is particularly intense on one of our east to west routes, we can push our crews up into Canada to avoid 100-knot headwinds—helping to reduce fuel, shorten travel time and give passengers a comfortable ride.”
He adds: “We also use WSI Fusion to display reports of volcanic activity, which is especially useful in areas where PIREPs are less common, such as Central America. WSI Fusion helps us visualize the altitudes and trajectory of ash fallout, and answer questions such as: ‘Can we operate safely around this activity?’, ‘What are the geographic boundaries of the fallout?’ and ‘When can we resume normal operations?’”
Faster access to information equips Alaska Airlines to make better-informed decisions that help more passengers arrive on time.
“If fog is disrupting the normal approach patterns of a large airport, we may be in a situation where two or more of our aircraft are in holding patterns waiting to land,” says Thynes. “If an aircraft burns too much fuel in the pattern, our crews might need to divert to an alternate airport—causing disruption for passengers and causing them to miss their connections.
“With WSI Fusion, we can see which of our aircraft in the pattern has the least fuel, and ask air traffic control to let them take priority over any of our other aircraft in the pattern—helping to ensure more of our aircraft land at their intended destination, even when conditions are difficult.”
Alaska Airlines also uses WSI Fusion to improve the efficiency of its operations on the ground.
“Crew duty regulations are very strict, and if one of our aircraft isn’t airborne in time, we are required to deploy a reserve crew or cancel the flight,” Thynes comments. “We can now see if long lines are forming for take-off, and engage our crew scheduling department at the earliest opportunity if we think we’re not going to make the deadline.
“Seeing the exact time that we pushed is also valuable for compliance purposes, particularly tarmac delay rules. If an aircraft has been held on the tarmac for a certain amount of time, we can reach out to the crew to ensure that we are providing the appropriate amenities, such as water, refreshments and bathroom breaks.”
He concludes: “As passenger numbers grow and airports get busier, it’s becoming increasingly important to take action before conditions deteriorate. Our solutions from The Weather Company help us make the proactive, informed decisions we need to keep our passengers moving—even in difficult weather.”
About Alaska Airlines
Founded in 1932 and headquartered in Seattle, Washington, Alaska Airlines and its sister carrier, Horizon Air, together serve 111 destinations in the Lower 48, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico. With hubs in Anchorage, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles, Alaska Airlines employs more than 10,000 people.
Take the next step
The Weather Company, an IBM Business, helps people make informed decisions and take action in the face of weather. The company offers the most accurate forecasts globally with personalized and actionable weather data and insights to millions of consumers, as well as thousands of marketers and businesses via Weather’s API, its business solutions division, and its own digital products from The Weather Channel (weather.com) and Weather Underground (wunderground.com).
The company delivers around 25 billion forecasts daily. Its products include the world’s most downloaded weather app, a network of 250,000 personal weather stations, a top-20 U.S. website, one of the world’s largest IoT data platforms, and industry-leading business solutions.
Weather Means Business™. The world’s biggest brands in aviation, energy, insurance, media, and government rely on The Weather Company for data, technology platforms and services to help improve decision-making and respond to weather’s impact on business.
For more, visit business.weather.com.