August 30, 2019

While hurricanes can be disruptive to airline operations and travel plans, these storms almost never pose a safety threat to passengers. Thanks to advancements in weather forecasts, airlines are able to minimize disruptions to operations and ensure the safety of those traveling by air.


Before the Storm

Hurricane Dorian intensifies as it tracks towards Bahamas and US. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Thanks to weather forecasts that can predict a tropical cyclone’s general track several days in advance, airlines are able to take widespread actions to keep their passengers, employees, and aircraft safe from coming storms. If a tropical cyclone is approaching an airport an airline serves, the airline will typically issue travel waivers, cancel flights, and evacuate most or all of its aircraft before the storm hits. Travelers who take proactive steps to get flights out of an affected city will have the best chances of evacuating before the storm hits; travelers who wait may find themselves unable to leave if their flight is cancelled and there are no seats left on earlier flights. 

The first major step that an airline typically takes when a tropical cyclone is forecast to hit an airport it serves is to issue a travel waiver, which allows passengers to change flights or cancel bookings without the usual fees. The dates and airports covered by travel waivers vary by airline; just because one airline is offering a travel waiver for a particular airport on a particular day does not mean that all other airlines serving the airport will also cover the airport with their waivers. Travelers who wish to alter their travel plans due to a storm even though their plans are not covered by a travel waiver should contact the airline by phone; the airline’s customer service agents may let passengers change their booking without penalty even without a travel waiver.  

Mass flight cancellations are the most common second step in an airline’s preparations for a tropical cyclone. Airlines typically cancel all flights out of airports expected to be hit by the tropical cyclone and will often announce the cancellations multiple days in advance. Airlines with hub operations at an affected airport are often the first to announce cancellations. After the cancellations are announced, airlines will attempt to re-book passengers at affected airports onto earlier flights to get them out of the storm’s path, but this is often difficult as earlier flights are typically already full due to passengers taking advantage of earlier travel waivers. 

Before the most severe tropical cyclones, airlines will focus on trying to get as many passengers, staff members, other travelers, and evacuees out of the storm’s path before they stop operations at an airport. Common steps include using larger aircraft on previously scheduled flights and operating extra evacuation flights out of airports in cities likely to be hit by storms. On some occasions, several US carriers have implemented price caps for flights out of areas forecast to be hit by hurricanes after media outlets criticized them for high fares on outbound flights. Airlines are likely to implement similar caps in advance of future major hurricanes.  

During the final days before a tropical cyclone hits a city, the airports serving the city typically become extremely busy. Passengers traveling on these days should allow significant extra time for check-in and security screening and should consider alternatives to driving to the airport as airport parking lots often fill up. Airport authorities urge passengers to only travel to the airport if they have a confirmed ticket for their flight, as most airports are not designed to keep occupants safe during a tropical cyclone and associated flooding.  


During the Storm

Airliner accidents related to tropical cyclones are extremely rare. The storms are predictable enough to allow airlines and pilots to keep their aircraft a safe distance from the storms, and pilots have strict guidelines for determining whether it is safe to land at an airport that is being affected by severe weather. 

A tropical cyclone poses little threat to an airliner at cruise altitude. The storms’ relatively slow and predictable movement means airliners are able to avoid the storms without difficulty. Even if an airliner did fly into a tropical cyclone, it would most likely emerge unharmed; lightly modified 1950s-era airliner designs routinely fly through even the strongest tropical cyclones as part of Hurricane Hunter meteorological flights. 

Like all severe weather events, tropical cyclones pose a greater threat to airliners at lower altitudes, especially those that are landing. Accidents are still very rare, however, as airliners have strict limits on the wind speeds they can operate in, and airports are able to provide approaching aircraft with frequent updates on the weather conditions at the airport. The most recent major airliner accident involving a tropical cyclone occurred in August 1999, when a Mandarin Airlines (AE) McDonnell Douglas MD-11 operating China Airlines (CI) flight CI-642 crashed while attempting to land at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) during a typhoon, killing three of the 315 people onboard.  


After the Storm

The time it takes for an airport to return to normal operations after a tropical cyclone depends on the extent of the damage at the airport, damage to local infrastructure, the capacity of local governments to repair any damage, and the scale of airline operations at an airport. In cases where an airport sustains severe damage in a storm, the airport will likely first open to relief flights only or for limited commercial operations before returning to full operations. 

Tropical cyclones rarely cause significant damage to airport runways but can severely damage or destroy airport terminals, air traffic control facilities, and navigation aids. Authorities usually have runways ready for takeoffs and landings within 48 hours of a tropical cyclone’s departure but repairing enough of the other facilities to enable a return to full operations can take weeks or longer. Damaged airports will therefore often be able to accept relief and evacuation flights within days of a storm but may take much longer to return to their normal schedules. 

Relief flights are usually the first flights into an airport following a major tropical cyclone. These flights carry emergency supplies for survivors of the storm, relief workers, and equipment needed to repair vital infrastructure. Military cargo aircraft often operate the first relief flights into an airport, but airlines usually send in their aircraft shortly afterward. Aircraft operating relief flights will often take evacuees with them on their return flights; such flights often have strict restrictions on luggage and other items that passengers are allowed to take with them.  

Relief flights often operate with a slightly elevated level of risk, as damaged airports often the lack the navigational aids, air traffic control facilities, and lighting that support most commercial flights. As a result, most relief flights operate exclusively during daylight hours. If an airport’s terminal is damaged, authorities may process and screen passengers in temporary facilities or in less-damaged portions of a terminal, which may lack air conditioning. Airport security can also be a challenge after a tropical cyclone, as the storms sometimes damage airports’ perimeter fences or gates, leaving the airport temporarily unsecured.  

Damage to surrounding infrastructure, especially electricity infrastructure, is often a major limiting factor in airport operations after a tropical cyclone. Major airports cannot function at full capacity without an external electricity supply; generators may provide enough electricity for limited operations, but cannot support full operations at large airports. Flooding on roads near an airport can hinder travelers’ access to the airport and prevent airport and airline employees from getting to work. Damage to fuel infrastructure can cause shortages of jet fuel and fuel shortages at local gas stations that may prevent employees from getting to work. 

Once an airport fully reopens to commercial service, airlines may still take several days or longer to get their own operations back to normal. Airlines with large operations at an affected airport often take longer to return to normal operations, as they rely on large numbers of local employees who may have evacuated during the storm or sustained damage to their own homes or vehicles. Such airlines also likely evacuated all of their aircraft based at the airport before the storm hit, and getting all their aircraft and required crews back to the affected airport often takes at least a day. Under the same circumstances, airlines with smaller operations at the affected airport may return to full operations sooner, as they have fewer local employees and aircraft based at the airport to coordinate.  

An extended version of this article appeared in a previous issue of WorldAware’s Airline Safety Newsletter.


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