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.)
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.