Delta Finds the Best Use for Gogo Internet Yet: Turbulence Avoidance

Delta, Operations, Technology

While the primary use of inflight internet has been to keep customers busy and distracted, there’s always been the potential for something more. Delta is now going to use Gogo’s wireless internet to make it easy for pilots to view real-time turbulence information. This should have a real impact on comfort, safety, and efficiency.

I spoke with Bill Watts, a pilot and the man behind Delta’s turbulence programs about how this is all going to work. (Or I should say, how it already works since it’s been in use since April.)

Dispatchers put together a flight plan before each flight and pilots work with them to make sure they’re getting the best routings considering predicted conditions. That takes weather into account, and they’ll usually avoid areas with the potential for severe turbulence, if possible. But routes are planned based on general weather data that comes from a current forecast at the time. Pilots don’t have access to good real-time weather info during the flight except the weather radar on the airplane. While weather radar is improving, providing turbulence information is something that’s still in its infancy.

There are, of course, ride reports given by other pilots ahead of them as well, but those aren’t scientific. There had to be a better way to capture turbulence information from other aircraft, right? Yes.

For at least a decade, there have been efforts to put airplanes to work collecting and sending weather data. There’s WSI’s TAPS, which is commercially available. There’s also the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and its algorithm. Delta did a test with TAPS and NASA more than a decade ago, but after its internal meteorology department evaluated in great detail, it opted to switch to the open source NCAR model.

Delta first installed the software (no hardware required) 7 years ago and it’s now on 737s and 767s. The 777s and A330s will have it soon while other models are going to get a version of it (tougher to do on older aircraft). Even with this being limited to two fleets, Delta has this system installed on 300 airplanes today. These airplanes track aircraft movements and report data used to calculate the EDR, or eddy dissipation rate, to detect turbulence. The system uses a scale of 0 to 100 to indicate intensity. If it detects moderate or higher turbulence, then the information is sent to the ground immediately. If it doesn’t, then regular reports are made with condition information every 15 to 20 minutes anyway.

None of this is particularly new. It’s what Delta can now do with the information that’s striking. Before, the data could be used by dispatchers but it wasn’t particularly easy for pilots to use it. Now, that changes.

Delta’s pilots already have electronic flight bags (read: tablets) with all the info they need. But those had info loaded on them and weren’t accessing the internet. Now, Delta has created an app for pilots that will use the Gogo systems on the aircraft to allow pilots to see real-time data. (That’s the only thing they can do with it, if you were wondering. They can’t just sit there and surf Reddit the whole flight.)

Delta Weather Viewer

The app takes all this real-time info from the Delta fleet and then puts it into an easy-to-use output for pilots. They see a map with color-coded turbulence plots. There’s apparently even an alert they can configure to let them know when they should turn the seatbelt sign on, if they can’t deviate around the area of turbulence.

The airline has been using this since April and the results, while not quantifiable yet, have been glowing. According to Bill, he’s received feedback from pilots saying it’s a “game-changer,” it’s the “best technology [that pilot has seen] in 25 yeas of flying,” and another pilot saying he “never needs to query the controller about the ride ahead” any longer.

Delta isn’t the only one working on this. American has been using TAPS and apparently once the pilot integration is done between US Airways and American, then the airline will start deploying real-time weather info into the cockpit as well. Other airlines are interested.

In the long run, Bill says there is hope that the NCAR data from all equipped aircraft could be used by all equipped airlines around the industry. The more data, the better. But it always takes a long time for the industry to agree on something like that. At this point it remains a dream.

Either way, even with its own data, Delta is going to have plenty of information to provide a better ride for travelers. That’s good news for everyone.

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11 comments on “Delta Finds the Best Use for Gogo Internet Yet: Turbulence Avoidance

  1. So what do they consider as severe turbulence that would have them using fuel to go out of their way to get around it? Does this software have a gauge that lets them know to just turn on the seat belt sign and a high level ‘we’ll be sued and make national news’ turbulence so go around?

  2. Interesting. I’m curious what is driving the data on this system, since its just software the plane probably already had some way of measuring turbulence.

    Although, this all makes me curious as to why they aren’t using the accelerators in the iPads as a turbulence data source. Sure it’d be a bit crude, but it’d be something for the older birds.

    1. Nick – iPads wouldn’t be accurate enough since there could be a lot of user error there. For the older aircraft, they have a fix that they think will work. It’s just a matter of getting it all done and tested. I don’t think it’ll happen right away, but they do have a solution, they say.

  3. This tech has its DNA in Northwests state of the art turbulence avoidance systems. Granted, technology has evolved over the years but NWAs WX & dispatch departments were the envy of the industry; to the point that they sold information to competing carriers.

  4. Cranky, the way you write all of this doesn’t instill a lot of confidence with me that pilots really have a very good handle on the en route weather. I’m not sure that’s the case, but any regular, even not so regular traveler might wonder, at times.

    When the captain asks the flight crew to be seated, how often we find that the expected moderate, even severe turbulence is not much more than a very light chop. But then, often when nothing is announced, suddenly we have a real whamo.

    Given what one sees at the National Aviation Weather Center website, and commercial sites like, etc., isn’t this stuff available for the captain and crew flying 37,000, coast-to-coast for every flight, every airline? Something more than just a generic ATC warning that turbulence has been reported in the ZDC sector this past hour, etc.? Maybe not, but in today’s world of information overload?

    Of course, maybe the crew’s using their info devices to look over the manifest of their passengers: 2F, 49, two kids, divorced twice, 2 felony convictions, two past restraining orders, third drink, has gone to the restroom 7 times in the last hour and a half, but, Global Platinum, spent $86,000 on online travel this past month, so!

    1. Jaybru – All of those turbulence sources have general information. The two ways pilots can get more accurate data is 1) via PIREPS, pilot filed reports or 2) asking ATC over the radio what the ride reports are. It’s not even close to exact, but directionally it helps. This data will be much better.

    2. The only two people on the plane who are prohibited by federal law from accessing the most up to date weather information the internet has to distribute are the pilots. The passenger in 16C has much better access to weather information than the pilots do. Delta’s innovation here is to create a means for the pilots to have restricted access to the internet that regulators approve of, via an app.

  5. Delighted to read this, Brett. As Eric C mentioned the information available to pilots has been artificially restricted for way too long, mainly due to ignorance, a lack of familiarity and a marked reluctance by exiting avionics manufacturers to even consider opening their strangle hold on the small, closed shop avionics market. “We Never Did It That Way Before” has been the motto of aviation for far too long.

    Hat’s off to Delta. Someone had to break the log jam and give pilot’s access to what’s already available to the general public. Now “if only” management of other airlines can pull their heads out of their normal “up and locked” position long enough to see the benefits for their operations, crews an (of yeah, those irritating PAX people) riding in the back.

  6. This sounds like Waze for turbulence, basically.

    I agree that US domestic carriers are FAR to quick to put the seatbelt light on and to cut service when the slightest bump appears, and hope that this technology will reduce that tendency.

  7. I wonder if this technology would have helped that United 767 IAH-LHR flight last week that hit moderate to severe turbulence over the Atlantic and ended up diverting to SNN.

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