Thunderstorms hundreds of miles away can wreak havoc on air travel

Cancellations have hit 3% nationally, which experts say is problematic

Imagine trying to fly out of Boston’s Logan International Airport without a thunderstorm in sight for hundreds of miles, yet, the Federal Aviation Administration issues a ground stop for severe weather.

It’s happened at least twice so far this summer in Beantown and likely at other airports across the country.

An FAA spokesperson said these types of disturbances in air travel are typical, but with the combination of other factors such as a shortage of airline crews and Covid, what once was just a normal weather delay can turn into a domino effect keeping passengers stuck at airports for hours.

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Because of the nation’s geography, major cities such as Boston and Miami can have a beautiful sunny day, yet storms hundreds of miles away can block air routes keeping planes trapped as if they were on an island.

"We do not put planes through thunderstorms for safety reasons," Ian Gregor, an FAA public affairs specialist, said. "The planes have either fly around them or wait for the weather to clear."

Specialists at 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers are responsible for guiding the planes once they leave sight of the local tower.

The FAA says when it comes to weather, the high altitude control centers will not overcrowd the skies, but sometimes delays in handling the workloads can come from non-weather events.

"An area can go understaffed temporarily because of Covid. So you’re going to see some slowing in traffic through that specific area," Gregor said.

Aviation experts say the combination of the potential disruptions increases the likelihood that a plane’s crew will time-out because of strict FAA rules that limit the hours pilots and flight attendants can work without a break.

"Without a deep bench of pilots to call up from reserve, flights will experience long delays or cancellations," Kathleen Bangs, a former commercial airline pilot and current FlightAware spokeswoman, said.

The routing of planes seems complex, but it is the redundancy and the expertise that keeps the skies some of the safest in the world.

"Travelers, though sometimes frustrated, might want to remember that the flying public has enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of airline safety as - even with the struggles of the pandemic – U.S. carriers have not sustained a fatal crash in 13 years, a historic record that highlights the professionalism and skill of our nation’s commercial pilots," Bangs said.

Flying woes

The experts at FlightAware.com say that anytime the U.S. sees a national cancellation rate above one percent, the situation becomes problematic for travelers.

So far through 2022, total cancellations have averaged three percent, and overall cancellations hit six percent over the Juneteenth weekend.

What’s causing the friendly skies to become a flyer’s worst nightmare? A combination of factors, but meteorologists say don’t place all the blame on Mother Nature.

This year’s weather hasn’t been significantly worse than in previous years.

Severe weather reports of tornadoes and hail are even running below the long-term average.

One potential roadblock to getting to your destination on time is a staffing shortage that has even forced some airlines to reduce routes to keep up with the growing demand.

"The pilot shortage has hit the regional carriers particularly hard. And the various unions have vocalized they are frustrated with having to fly demanding schedules with little reprieve, as the airlines work to meet the demand from the surge in travel," Bangs said.

Bangs believes more realistic work schedules could help smooth some travel interruptions until more pilots enter the aviation industry.

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Fourth of July travel forecast

As is typical fashion during the summer months, thunderstorms will likely be prevalent somewhere in the eastern half of the nation on July Fourth.

If the storms are near or over a major airport, it could mean major delays for the millions of travelers that are expected to use the friendly skies to get to their holiday destinations.

AAA expects nearly 48 million people will travel for the Independence Day holiday, and 3 to 4 million will use U.S. airports.

"The volume of travelers we expect to see over Independence Day is a definite sign that summer travel is kicking into high gear," Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel, said in a statement.

Because of the potential weather and impacts from other operations, experts advise all travelers to have multiple plans in case delays or cancellations interfere with holiday celebrations.

AAA believes Friday, July 1, could be the busiest air travel day, with the lightest passenger load expected to be on the holiday of July 4.

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