Airport, Airline Weather System Updates To Save Time, Fuel, Eventually

When unavoidable bad weather causes turbulence in the air, passengers can expect a rocky ride. In the past, while pilots have aimed to avoid turbulence, they have been limited in the number of available tools. Now, a new turbulence avoidance system promises to change that.

A smoother ride
Called the Juneau Airport Wind System (JAWS), it was developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and provides information pilots can use to route aircraft away from patches of potentially dangerous turbulence.

“By alerting pilots to areas of moderate and severe turbulence, this system enables them to fly more frequently and safely in and out of the Juneau airport in poor weather,” says Alan Yates, an NCAR program manager who helped oversee the system’s development in an R&D Magazine article. “It allows pilots to plan better routes, helping to reduce the bumpy rides that passengers have come to associate with airports in these mountainous settings.”

The system uses a network of wind measuring instruments and computational formulas to interpret rapidly changing atmospheric conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration accepted JAWS for operational use this year.

Just how bad can turbulence in the air be? Check this video:

Sliding in for a landing
In the works and delayed for several years, another system relies on satellites and GPS rather than the radar system developed in the 1950s to direct planes and jets from takeoff to landing.

Called the NextGen system, it will be initially used in Orlando, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, northern and southern California, Houston, Charlotte and northern Texas. The new system should allow planes to fly with less spacing between them on more direct routes, and allowing them to glide to a landing rather than following a step down pattern that is not fuel efficient.

The NextGen system has been compared to walking down a flight of stairs vs. sliding down the banister.

“In addition to improving safety and increasing capacity, this plan will allow for more direct routing for airplanes, less holding at the destination and better planning for constant descent arrivals mentioned above, resulting in less carbon emissions, fuel consumption, and noise.” said Gadling’s Kent Wien in Plane Answers: Airlines see green in appearing green back in 2009, just to show how long this one has been in the works.

This video tells the whole story:

Flickr photo by Ack Ook

Plane Answers: Cockpit jumpseat etiquette and inefficient arrivals

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

David asks:

Hi Kent,

While riding in the jump seat do you ever double check what the PIC and SIC are doing? Have you ever seen something that you would have done differently and pointed it out? I know the cockpit is supposed to be sterile below 10,000 ft but have you ever said something or pointed out a checklist item that might have been overlooked?

When we have jumpseaters we almost always mention to them that if they see anything out of the ordinary, speak up. You’d be surprised at the things you can see sitting further away from the instrument panel. An extra set of eyes are always welcome.

Most of these items aren’t safety related, so I’ll usually stay quiet unless something could pose a problem later. But I wouldn’t hesitate to say something even below 10,000 feet (the sterile period) and I’d hope another jumpseater would feel the same way when sitting behind me.

Anthony asks:

Hi Kent,

I enjoy your blog and try to visit regularly. I have a question about standard arrival procedures (STARs?). They seem to add quite a bit of time to the flight as you go all over the place before finally lining up and landing. I have been told that in the early days of jets, pilots would simply throttle back the engines and descend at a fairly high rate with the engines at idle giving a faster trip.

Given that you often hear of a departure being delayed because of flow control (it even happens on trans-continental flights here in Australia), why can’t the flow control be more precisely devised for quicker arrivals like the old days?

Is this what is being planned with the trials by Air New Zealand, Qantas and United flying from the South Pacific into California?
Hi Anthony,

We often wonder about the reasons for the extended vectors around populated areas at major airports.

They tell us that in order to sequence a number of flights into an airport with multiple runways, it’s becoming necessary to have ‘corner posts’ or other waypoints around the airport that allow for the proper alignment and spacing at an airport.

We still fly to many airports with very little traffic. When flying into Shannon, Ireland or some of the Caribbean airports, we’re often able to descend at the most efficient angle (which, like you described, is done with an idle descent at the latest possible point) resulting in significant fuel savings.

Flying into the New York airports or any other high density terminal areas usually requires an airplane to descend earlier while being ‘vectored’ by ATC to get around departing aircraft from other airports. Prior to that, aircraft are sequenced well in advance to avoid a saturation of arrivals at the same moment.

I’d love to understand more about it, but as pilots, we don’t always have the big picture as it relates to multiple airports with multiple departures and arrivals.

In the U.S. there’s a lot of talk about an ATC program called “NextGen” which promises to allow for more efficient flight plans. Let’s hope so.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Is “Free Flight” the answer to ATC delays?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!


I know a lot has been written lately about airport delays, I have also read something about “Free Flying.” With TCAS is ATC obsolete? Should ATC be more focused on ground operations, to get planes in the air? I know from most recent articles the ATC system is operating on antiquated systems and in need of a massive overhaul. I am interested to hear your opinion, is “Free Flying” in our future?


Thanks Justin,

We’re not able to navigate or adjust our spacing using our Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). This device, which is almost like a radar screen showing the other traffic within 40 miles of our airplane, is solely to keep us from running into someone. Think of it as a backup to the Air Traffic Control system. And just like passengers aren’t generally interested in pilotless airplanes, pilots may not be interested in a world without controllers directing traffic and keeping us safe.

The ability for airplanes to fly directly to a destination is one thing that would shorten travel times, but it’s important to put the benefit in perspective. The FAA is hoping to develop a system that would allow for a direct routing versus today’s system of waypoints and VOR’s that define a more jagged path, but it will only save a few minutes of flight time.

The FAA is even more interested in the ability to space flights closer when near the airport using a new technology called NextGen. Why are they so excited about this?

Because it’s low hanging fruit.

Even at $20 billion, it just might offer the best answer to the capacity problem. Using computers and GPS, we can have more direct flights and airplanes can take care of their own spacing as they approach the airport. Take a look at this video on “NextGen” by David Pogue for CBS News that explains what the FAA is trying to do (after the jump):

While they make the small airplane owners look like the bad guys in this story, it’s hard to see any reason to force Cessna 182 pilots to pay $6,000 for a box that will help ATC control traffic around a hub like DFW or ORD, an area that most general aviation (Cessna) pilots avoid anyway.

Unless we start doing formation takeoff and landings on ultra-wide runways out of JFK and other saturated airports-a highly unlikely scenario-we’re not going to see delays improve without capacity reductions or huge investments in new infrastructure. So the next step is to improve the infrastructure at airports by adding gates, revising taxiways and adding more runways. The trouble is, people living near these airports equate that to more traffic and subsequently, noise. And it’s yet another cost.

At airports with most frequent delays, airlines need to ‘bump-up’ the size of airplanes. A 19-seat Beech 1900 takes up nearly the same airspace that a 747 does. It might take the government to step in and mandate a minimum size of aircraft at these ultra-saturated airports, but this could be an effective way to fix the problem. The smaller airplanes might begin flying more point-to-point trips from lesser used airports in the same way Southwest does now.

We’re going to get some short term relief from the airlines that are cutting back later this year for economic reasons. But that’s no reason to sit back and wait until we’re near gridlock once again to fix the problem.

Thanks for the great question, Justin.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.