Every day, Warren Weston sits down at his desk in Delta’s Operations and Customer Center in Atlanta and performs a job that’s crucial to the airline’s operation: he tracks the weather. Weston, along with 27 others, serves on Delta’s in-house meteorology team – the largest on-site meteorology department among all U.S. airlines.
What exactly does Delta’s meteorology team do? To put it simply, they monitor the weather and create forecasts, which are updated every six hours, and they send those forecasts to various operating groups across the OCC and the flight crew on each aircraft to make informed decisions about the route for every Delta flight. But there’s much more to it than that.
Weston recently gave a behind-the-scenes look at every role the meteorology team plays, from updating the Weather Information Tool and helping flight crews avoid turbulence to forecasting the weather both around major airports and up to 40,000 feet.
THERE ARE TWO FOCUS GROUPS WITHIN THE TEAM
Delta’s meteorology department is staffed around the clock, split into two groups based on different focuses. First, there is the surface group, which keeps an eye on Delta’s hubs and other key airports. The forecasts this group produces revolve around any hinderance aircraft could encounter when flying in and out of the airport and can inform operational decisions.
On the flip side, the upper air group looks at hazards aircraft could encounter once the flights are already off the ground, like areas of turbulence, thunderstorms and even volcanic ash. This group is working with flight crews and flight planners to help foster a safe and comfortable flight for Delta passengers and aircraft.
For example: Let’s say a volcano erupts somewhere along a flight route. The meteorology team will make dispatchers aware of the risk of blowing ash well in advance so the flight path can be changed as needed.
COLLABORATION IS KEY
It all starts with weather, and the goal of the meteorology team is to provide information with enough lead time so that our operations teams can make informed decisions.
“Because our team is located inside the OCC where operational decisions are made, we can easily collaborate with others inside the OCC,” said Weston. “This is especially helpful during irregular operations when we are trying to pinpoint the timing of the worst weather conditions. We understand what conditions can impact the operation, and the products we create ultimately help improve operational safety and efficiency.”
Each day begins with a briefing joined by colleagues from across Delta’s operation, and a five-day outlook is discussed. Focused on Delta’s primary hubs, this outlook is critical to start the process of planning and deciding if changes will need to be made to the operational schedule and notices will need to be sent out to customers about flights being delayed.
During the planning phase, the meteorology team works on the forecast, which is updated every six hours and is good for 30 hours, while also watching flights currently in the air.
These forecasts inform decisions about everything from flight paths to staffing.
A forecast is produced by the meteorology team that station managers at each airport can access online and use to determine things like whether extra staffing may be needed. For example, if a snowstorm is predicted, station managers can look at that forecast and decide what level of de-icing operations they may need to implement, and whether that will require additional staffing.
Flight Planners & Dispatchers
Delta’s meteorologists are also putting out forecasts that look at visibility, cloud height, turbulence levels and other factors so that flight planners and dispatchers can make decisions, like whether an aircraft needs to carry additional fuel for an alternate airport in case of weather conditions.
“Our flight planners and dispatchers are looking several hours in advance,” said Weston. “It’s kind of like there are highways in the sky, and those teams are able to use our forecasts to direct them to what might be the best track for a flight coming up.”
Turbulence is one of the main focuses of the upper air group, so being able to communicate these special forecasts with pilots and flight attendants is important.
“We want to keep our flight crews and our customers safe and comfortable,” Weston said.
Each pilot has an iPad in the flight deck with a product called Widget Weather that they can pull up in flight which allows them to see Delta forecasts for turbulence, thunderstorms or anything else safety related. If the flight crew identifies a pocket of irregular air patterns that may cause turbulence, they can then collaborate with air traffic control to see if they have space to climb or go a little lower to avoid it.
IT’S ALL ABOUT DATA
So where exactly is Delta’s meteorology team getting their data? Some data comes from the National Weather Service. Additional in-house data comes from places like pilot reports, which are sent from the flight crew and informs the meteorology team about how smooth the flight is, allowing them to refine data for turbulence forecasts.
Another important source for data is the Weather Information Tool, which is a dashboard that shows all of Delta’s hubs. This useful tool looks at all the major hubs, including international, for the next five days and highlights ones where there may be a moderate to major problem. This helps identify potential problem areas and allows the meteorology team and other groups within the Operations and Customer Center to plan for staffing and operations.
"Everything that we do is geared toward safety,” Weston said. “That's always our goal at the end of the day.”
BY THE NUMBERS
- 28 meteorologists on the team
- 2 focuses within the team: upper air and surface weather
- Hundreds of upper air hazard alerts issued per day
- 36 hub forecasts issued each day
- That is 9 forecasts issued 4 times a day, every 6 hours
- These forecasts are valid for 30 hours
- A 5-day outlook is issued to 9 domestic hubs as well as CDG, AMS and ICN
- 50-75 stations can have a Delta meteorology forecast during irregular operations, as the team issues hourly forecasts for every mainline or Delta Connection station that meets irregular operations criteria