Lightning is a spectacular display of the raw power of nature, full of beauty and wonder. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most dangerous weather phenomena when people are exposed in the open. Thankfully, very few people die (418 total between 2006 through 2019) from lightning strikes, mainly out of a cultural abundance of caution (i.e., stay inside, seek shelter, and get out of the water when you hear thunder, etc.).
Lightning can cause significant disruption in certain industries, however, including aviation. Standard operating procedures for the airport community have always been to shut down operations when lightning is within five nautical miles and resume once it passes.
Tomorrow.io is revolutionizing this process to reduce time wasted by providing pinpoint data on the location of the observed lighting with the track it’s taking. The result is your airport being able to eliminate downtime associated with lightning warnings.
The Threat Lightning Poses to Aviation Operations
Lightning poses a significant threat to aviation operations in the air and on the ground. Lightning strikes on aircraft are pretty standard, mostly occurring when aircraft are in the clouds (96 percent). Most legacy aircraft were composed of metal components thick enough that the electrical surges were distributed and dissipated before it had the opportunity to cause damage.
Modern jets, though, use far more composite components in their design, which are not nearly as durable or impervious to lightning strikes as metal designs. Lightning strikes have been known to splinter nose cones, craze windscreens, and damage other composite components.
Lightning can become much more difficult to avoid in the terminal area over en route because there is little (if any) room for course deviation in the terminal area. For example, if a jet is riding the glideslope on an Instrument Landing System (ILS), the jet cannot deviate. Therefore, if they encounter lightning along the instrument procedure, it is best just to ride it to the ground rather than go around and go into a holding pattern for a missed approach.
The ground crew personnel are at a higher risk than the aircraft (remember, aircraft are designed to absorb and disperse lightning strikes). Around 300 people are struck by lightning annually, some of which have been at airports.
There is alarmingly little information on safety protocol at airports regarding lightning safety. The default is OSHA guidance on the matter, which is extremely vague. If you can hear thunder, you need to go inside and not come back out until 30 minutes after the last rumble is heard.
Resources Lost to Lightning
Frankly, the OSHA guidance is of little to no use for running any serious operation. You need to know specific parameters to ensure that two things happen:
- First, personnel are safely indoors when lightning is in the area.
- Personnel are not spending more time than necessary indoors sheltering.
Every minute counts in the aviation industry. So much so that every delay minute costs, on average, $74. According to a 2014 study at a major airport, the FAA and NARC studied ramp operations to determine how accurately lightning protocol was administered and followed. The finding was startling.
It was found that major airport hubs were closing their ramp when it was unnecessary. The study proved that at least 15% of the time ramps were closed due to false lightning alerts, they could have been open. This resulted in paused operations and delayed flights. If these locations had been monitoring the trajectory of a lightning storm or strike, they could have kept the ramps opened and continued normal operations saving valuable time and money, while still keeping the safety of the staff and crew a priority.
Time is money. The cost of calling off work when the apron should have remained open is not cheap. In the summer of 2014, across the representative sampling of eight airports (ATL, DEN, EWR, IAD, IAH, MCO, MIA, & ORD), at least $6 million in revenue was lost due to incorrectly induced ramp closures.
It is staggering to consider that less than a third of lightning closures are effective by established standards and procedures. Moreover, fully 70 percent of all closures were wrongly implemented in one way or another, which costs undue money, and the other creates undue risk.
The Tomorrow.io Solution
Tomorrow.io is at the forefront of using advanced weather tracking to provide airport operators, air traffic control, and airline dispatchers the ability to predict lightning with far improved certainty than relying on legacy weather warnings.
So, how can airports and aviation organizations better protect staff and passengers? Watch to learn how Tomorrow.io’s Real-Time Lightning Alerts can optimize safety and efficiency.
Issuing weather watches and warnings have always been a lack of localized accuracy. As a result, your operation is left with little more than a rough, broad area to focus on. The weather is to the west, moving east-northeast at 25 knots. Okay, great, that might tell you where the gust front and the rain is, but where are the bands of lightning located and exactly how long until they hit? And what if the lightning is a one-off, isolated strike rather than part of a band of coordinated strikes?
Tomorrow.io is solving this riddle. We provide you with email and text notifications built around your parameters. For example, we’ll let you know if you should expect cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-ground lightning. Also, when you select your functional area, you can see the lightning strikes in real-time and storm direction and timing rings. Finally, on your personalized Tomorrow.io dashboard, you can set up range rings for monitoring exactly when to bring in personnel and clear the apron.
Air traffic control will benefit from our systems by gaining a much more accurate view of where lightning is about terminal procedures and knowing when it will interfere with those procedures. This will equate to more aircraft being allowed to land and depart without holding in the air or on the ground. Forty-eight minutes of holding in the air is a lot of wasted fuel, not to mention congested airspace.
Severe weather is the age-old nemesis of flying, and thunderstorms are especially dangerous. There is lightning to contend with and severe updrafts and downdrafts, wind shear, and hail. Current warning and forecasting are built around the broad area concept, which affords far more cushion in timing than is necessary; a storm in the same county as the airport may never come within ten miles of the airport and has no operational impact at all, yet it is still a warned storm. Tomorrow.io is changing the archaic framework by providing you with pinpoint solutions.