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Thunderstorm Affects Airport Operation and Increases ATS Workload19 Jun 2014

On 30th March 2014, air traffic in Pear River Delta Area suffered from severe delays due to bad weather as thunderstorms covered the sky over most of the region. Macau International Airport (MFM) accepted one B777 from Far East Asia which had declared fuel emergency after one missed approach from Runway 16. Many flights had diverted to other airports or cancelled due to this bad weather.

Meteorologically speaking, thunderstorms are a result of the lifting of warm, moist air. As the air rises, it cools and condenses into a cloud. As the droplets of water collide with each other, they grow and eventually fall in the form of rain. This rainfall causes downdrafts of air that hit the ground and spread out laterally. Downdrafts pose a large threat to aircraft in the form of wind shear. Aircraft and airports have equipment that detects wind shear and warns pilots of its presence. If the aircraft equipment detects a wind shear situation, it directs the pilots with visual cues to avoid it.

The sound of thunder and the flash of lighting during the Spring season in our region is very common. While most storms give the airport nothing more than a good soaking, some storms do become severe and have a brief impact on airport operations, including servicing aircraft.

According to our defined standard, when thunderstorm is predicted for more than 5 KM from the airport, an “Amber” thunderstorm warning will be issued to remind airport staff that it may have a chance for “Red” thunderstorm.  When the lighting is detected within 5 KM around our airport, a red thunderstorm warning will be issued by airport meteorological center. Then we know that the following impacts to our airport operation might be appeared:

1、Short flight disruptions. Short arrival and departure delays can be expected based on the location, size and height of the storm cell. The Air Traffic Control Tower and aircraft pilot make the call on these delays as well as rerouting aircraft in the sky when the storm crosses flight paths.

2、Fueling is suspended. Most passengers never notice this impact and the fueling of aircraft are temporarily suspended per airport requirements and as a general measure of safety. We have a defined operational procedure that alerts us to lightning strikes in various distances from the airport.  Also, airlines have varying policies about whether loading luggage and other aircraft servicing continues during a thunderstorm.

3、Boarding and deplaning aircraft. You can see tweets this time of year from passengers who have landed but cannot deplane an aircraft because of storm activity over MFM.  Each airline has its own policy about allowing boarding or deplaning during storms. These are due to general safety concerns for passengers and airline/ground staff employees as well.

4、Aircraft diversions. When an inbound plane cannot land due to a storm affecting an airport, it most often circles at a safe distance until the storm clears. But, if the storm is a slow-mover, the plane may have to divert to another airport to refuel. We have many diversions on that day and we receive many diverted flights every year for this reason. I have seen both British Airways and Cathy Pacific Airlines flights on the ground due to weather elsewhere. These flights usually refuel and continue on to their final destinations.

During periods of thunderstorm conditions, the visibility will be affected and ATC may assign aircraft to holding patterns or prevent aircraft from taking off until the weather clears. This adverse weather causes extreme overload for air traffic services’ personnel and it reflect in the following aspects:

1、Heavy coordination with Hong Kong or Zhuhai ATC regarding the movement of the aircraft and its relevant holding, transfer, deviation, diversion and flow management etc.

2、Heavy workload for handling many flight plans and ATS messages for all those unexpected diversions, delays and cancellation.

3、Frequent coordination with airport meteorological office for the updating weather information and the timing of issuance and/or cancellation of red thunderstorm warning;

4、Increased coordination with airport operation service regarding flight authorization for unexpected landing and parking for possible diversion flights;

5、Increased coordination with our engineering and maintenance services to check the airfield following storms making sure all of our equipment is safe and working properly.

Thunderstorms are an airplanes worst enemy. Fortunately, the impacts at MFM from severe thunderstorms are generally short-lived. With the hard working of ATS staff and other colleagues from the airport, such impacts can be reduced to minimum. If you’re ever at MFM (Macau International Airport) waiting for your flight and a storm passes by, you can know it likely won’t be long before you’ll hear the words, “now boarding.” 


Source: ADA Pulse