Can New Technology Help Planes Dodge Turbulence?

Airlines are testing new technology that could even warn pilots of “clear air turbulence” in advance

Plane in bumpy air
One day we could stop worrying about bumpy flights. Flickr user Deepak G

It’s hard to say whether the "experience" of flying, as it once was, diminshed when we had to start paying for something as extravagant as taking a suitcase on vacation, or, perhaps when someone determined that peanuts and pretzels were superfoods.

But fear not, thrillseekers among us. There’s still turbulence.

Of course, that’s the kind of excitement most of us could do without, which is why some airlines have started testing technology that could help pilots avoid what they coolly refer to as “bumpy air.”

According to research sponsored by NASA, there are roughly 750 turbulence incidents resulting in minor or major injuries each year. And each of those incidents can cost as much as $167,000. By one estimate, the annual cost of turbulence to all airlines is about $100 million. 

So some airlines have started looking into how to minimize the impact turbulence can have on a flight—or, eliminate the issue all together.

Certain American Airlines planes, for instance, are now flying with sensors connected to a tracking system called Total Turbulence. It's a much more precise way to capture data than the standard practice, which has been for pilots who experience turbulence to let traffic controllers and other pilots know about it. But as one can imagine, reporting by pilots doesn’t happen consistently. It's also based on subjective judgments; one pilot’s serious turbulence could seem quite moderate to another. 

The Total Turbulence system measures intensity levels of turbulence around a plane and sends the readings in real-time to a data center, which in turn transmits warnings to planes that plan to follow the same path. The Weather Company, which also owns the Weather Channel, plans to market the service to other airlines.

American Airlines also plans to start using a new weather radar system called MultiScan ThreatTrack, designed to let pilots know if a thunderstorm cell is moving into a plane’s path. The radar system, according to its developer, Rockwell Collins, is also the first to detect two different levels of turbulence—“severe” and “ride quality”—to give pilots a better sense of what to expect, and time to prepare accordingly.  

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines, working with the National Weather Service, is exploring the use of special water vapor sensors on its 737s. The sensors provide the weather service—and the airlines—with moisture readings at different altitudes throughout the day. Previously, that kind of data came just twice a day, from balloons the weather service sent into the sky at 100 locations around the country.

Already, the sensors seem to be paying off. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2013, forecasters predicted an ice storm in the Dallas area, prompting more than 400 cancelled flights at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. But the sensors on Southwest’s planes revealed there wasn’t enough moisture in the air to cause that kind of storm, so the airline kept its schedule intact. The bad weather didn’t happen. 

Clear and present danger

For all of the anxiety it may cause passengers, rough air within a storm at least doesn’t come as a surprise. That's not the case for an unpleasant phenomenon known simply as “clear air turbulence,” or CAT.  It seems to come out of nowhere, happening in clear skies with no clouds to serve as a warning.

Scientists believe CAT is caused by what’s known as gravity waves. They’re formed when air is forced upwards, often over mountains, until they bump up against the stratosphere. That sets off ripples that can end up shaking a plane hundreds of miles away. 

According to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change last year, CAT could occur much more frequently in the future, particularly over the North Atlantic, due to climate change. Researchers think its frequency could jump anywhere from 40 to 170 percent by mid-century.

German scientists hope they’ve devised a way to spot clear air turbulence, using ultraviolet lasers. Engineers at the DLR German Aerospace Centre have developed a method, using the lasers to measure the reflected signal from oxygen and nitrogen molecules. The device can detect fluctuations in air density and determine if there’s CAT ahead. 

The scientists say the system is able to spot turbulence up to 9 miles in front of a plane. They began testing the technology in flights over Europe last fall; their goal is to extend that distance to about 20 miles. 

Here are other recent innovations in air travel:

Here’s looking at you: As part of a pilot program, Virgin Atlantic staffers at Heathrow Airport in London are using Google Glass to check in passengers. A screen just above the attendant’s eye allows him or her to check passenger and flight information. And the camera in the glasses scans the ticket and passport, speeding up the boarding process.

The light stuff: A French startup called Expliseat has designed a lightweight airplane seat that’s part titanium and part composite materials. Each seat weighs only about 9 pounds—or about half the typical weight. The company contends that the savings in fuel from the lighter seat could be as much as $500,000 per plane per year.

Baggage claims: British Airways is testing digital luggage tags it says will reduce check-ins times and shorten lines. The tags will have two small electronic-ink screens showing the bag's destination, along with a corresponding barcode with more flight details. Instead of getting a new tag for each flight, passengers keep the same one and update it with a smartphone app when they travel again. The airline is expected to make them available later this year.

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