Q: Often it seems like the airlines only want to fly in good weather. Yet the weather service routinely flies low-tech planes through hurricanes. How much of avoiding weather is safety, and how much is the airlines just not waiting to scare the passengers? I would rather endure a few bumps and arrive on time, than sit at the airport for three hours.
While NASA or the weather service may occasionally fly research airplanes through hurricanes, it is not anything you want to try, trust me.
The vast majority of weather delays are caused by traffic congestion at destination airports, or enroute saturation along routes, or “airways.” In the first case, separation requirements change as ceilings and visibility go down, and aircraft must be funneled into instrument approach patterns. Fewer aircraft can land in a given stretch of time, backing up the arrivals. In the second case, even high-altitude routes often become blocked by storms, and so flights are diverted around them, causing backlogs. Often these two situations occur simultaneously, and the congestion can reach a point where departing flights are held on the ground so they don’t exacerbate the gridlock.
If a flight is diverting around a weather cell, it is not doing so to placate squeamish passengers. If that very airplane were empty but for the pilots themselves, they would be making the same decisions.
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.