Flying in Bad Weather

It’s every flyer’s worst nightmare to see the weather on their traveling day take a turn for the worst, dreading the possible delays that could last anywhere from an hour to half a day or even longer. Safety is more important to airlines and the FAA than flyer happiness or schedules, which from a long-term point of view is a good thing – even if the delays and inconvenience may make some flyers want to throw caution to the wind.

Pilots, the FAA and airlines thoroughly assess the current conditions and forecast to determine if the weather is too dangerous to take off or land in before delaying or canceling your flight. They take customer satisfaction seriously, especially since widespread delays or cancellations make national news and impact their reputations. You can rest assured that they don’t make these decisions on a whim.

Guidelines and Rules for Flying in Bad Weather

Before every flight, pilots obtain a comprehensive weather briefing that includes the current weather conditions, forecasts and potential hazards along their route. Flight planning is critical in bad weather. Pilots must choose an appropriate altitude that minimizes turbulence and ensures a safe journey. Higher altitudes may offer smoother rides in some cases, while lower altitudes can help avoid severe weather systems.

Every aircraft is equipped to handle adverse weather conditions with functioning de-icing systems, reliable weather radar and up-to-date instruments. Conducting regular maintenance checks is essential to ensure these systems are in proper working order. If there’s any indication of a mechanical problem, a pilot will cancel or delay the flight until it’s resolved.

Since bad weather can lead to unexpected delays or diversions, pilots must check if they have sufficient fuel reserves to account for contingencies in addition to the planned flight.

When flying in bad weather, pilots should have alternative routes and diversion airports in mind, so they can change course or land at an alternative airport if the need arises.

Maintaining clear communication with air traffic control (ATC) is especially crucial in bad weather. Pilots should promptly report any changes in weather conditions or aircraft status to air traffic control so they can get assistance navigating safely using the optimal route available. This is particularly important in busy U.S. airspace when visibility drops.

When Is a Flight Canceled?

Some weather conditions will be too dangerous for a pilot to attempt to fly through. For example, if visibility has significantly diminished due to fog, heavy rain or snow, your pilot will likely decide it’s unsafe to take off or continue the flight. Excessive crosswinds or wind shear can also make takeoff and landing challenging, which is why severe wind levels may make it necessary to cancel the flight.

Even if the weather conditions don’t appear to be hazardous, it’s the pilot’s call if they think they should delay or cancel the flight.

For example, while aircraft are equipped with de-icing systems, they are still susceptible to ice accumulation. A pilot may wait or cancel a flight to avoid flying through freezing conditions and risk hindering the plane’s performance.

Although modern aircraft are designed to survive lightning strikes, thunderstorms can still be dicey. Pilots will avoid flying through or near thunderstorms whenever possible, especially since they can involve heavy turbulence, hail and lightning strikes.

Severe turbulence is another hazard that can pose a serious risk to the aircraft and passengers, and flights can be postponed if turbulence levels are expected to be beyond what the aircraft can handle.

Can Non-Commercial Flights Still Fly in Bad Weather?

Yes, non-commercial flights, especially those that aren’t carrying passengers, such as cargo flights, can still operate in bad weather conditions. Private jet and business jet pilots may also decide to fly even when a major carrier decides to ground flights – if air traffic controllers and the FAA allow it.

Pilots operating private planes have more flexibility than commercial carrier pilots in choosing when and where to fly, and cargo pilots don’t have to account for passenger comfort. However, both should use a similar discretion to commercial pilots to gauge the risk level and prioritize safety over expediency.

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