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COMING CLEAN

Sharing data on turbulence could help the airline industry cut carbon emissions

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
Rough air ahead.
  • Nicolás Rivero
By Nicolás Rivero

Reporter

Turbulence is more than just a stomach-dropping annoyance: In the US alone, it causes dozens of injuries to passengers and flight crews, forces pilots to burn 160 million extra gallons of fuel looking for smooth air, and costs airlines $100 million each year.

To curb these costs, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry group that represents 290 airlines in 120 countries, is trying to convince its members to share their turbulence data with each other. On Jan. 1, it will launch something like an airborne version of Waze: a platform called Turbulence Aware where airlines can submit turbulence reports from individual flights to help their peers avoid rough air.

But getting competitors to collaborate isn’t easy—especially when it comes to potentially damaging information. “Airlines get a lot of lawsuits for turbulence, so anything that can help the legal process for their opponents, they’re not comfortable disclosing at all,” said Katya Vashchankova, who runs the Turbulence Aware project. To get airlines onboard, IATA took pains to anonymize every datapoint, and does not share its database with the public.

Throughout 2019, IATA ran a small pilot program with 35 airlines, including Delta, United, Airfrance, Lufthansa, and Cathay Pacific. Only 11 of them agreed to contribute data to the platform. (Fair enough: Even anonymized data could be used as ammunition.) But all of them incorporated the information into their turbulence planning in some way. The larger airlines layered turbulence reports over their proprietary weather models, while smaller ones allowed pilots or dispatchers to see the reports through a free IATA program.

 

The system operates through a piece of software installed on planes’ flight computers, which takes in data about the aircraft’s speed, altitude, pitch, and angle of attack, runs the readings through a formula, and spits out a turbulence score, which it automatically sends into the database. In its first year, the program collected about 45 million turbulence scores.

Although IATA doesn’t yet have data on the program’s impact, Delta began experimenting with a similar turbulence data collection system three years ago, this one strictly in-house. It claims it saw promising results. In a press release, the airline said it was able to reduce the number of times pilots changed altitude to find smoother air during a flight, resulting in “a reduction in carbon emissions of around 80,000 metric tons over one year”—the equivalent of taking about 17,000 cars off the road.

Vashchankova says IATA has talked with 80 airlines about participating in the Turbulence Aware program when it rolls out in the new year, although she can’t say how many of them will actually put aside their misgivings and contribute data to the project. But she hopes that IATA has hit on the right alchemy of privacy and potential benefit that can lure them in.

“Turbulence is a big issue and the existing tools have been insufficient, so everyone wants the data,” Vashchankova says. But, she concedes, “other entities that tried to do this in past failed precisely because they couldn’t find consensus on how to share the data.”

If they can figure it out, it’ll be a smoother ride for all passengers—and flying will be a little easier on the Earth.

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