IATA’s Turbulence Aware initiative to provide airlines with real-time inflight turbulence updates made the transition from project to fully operational service at the beginning of 2020. And despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the platform collected and disseminated over 21 million turbulence reports from some 1,500 aircraft from 12 airlines during the year, according to Brent King, IATA’s Head, Flight Operations Efficiency.

Turbulence Aware is built around a turbulence measuring algorithm developed by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that is available as a free open source solution, explains Katsiaryna Vashchankova, IATA’s Head Operational Data Solutions. To use Turbulence Aware, airlines first need to install the NCAR software in their aircraft avionics system, which can be done in-house (IATA can provide implementation guidance) or via a third party.

Once the software is installed, it collects existing sensor data including true airspeed, angle of attack,  and a few other parameters and uses these parameters to continuously calculate the Energy Dissipation Rate (EDR) . EDR is an official metric of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Meteorological Organization for measuring turbulence intensity

What is important to note is that the EDR measurement is aircraft independent. It doesn’t matter whether the aircraft is a narrow-body or a widebody. “It’s just measuring the state of the atmosphere around the aircraft in flight,” says Vashchankova.

Once the EDR value exceeds the pre-determined turbulence threshold, the software compiles a text-based report containing EDR value, aircraft position, altitude, time stamp, wind and temperature, which is automatically sent to the ground (via ACARS or broadband), “It will report the values every minute until the threshold reduces,” says King. If there is no turbulence it sends what’s known as a “heartbeat” message every 15-20 minutes to indicate the system is working.

The reports then come to IATA via the airline’s own ground station or service provider. The report is de-identified and then is made available to all program participants in less than a second. “From the time the data is recorded by the aircraft, to the time the aircraft is sending it to the ground for us to process and the airline to consume might be a couple of minutes, but it’s as close to real time as you can get,” says King.

Aircraft with broadband connectivity can receive the reports directly, otherwise, where there’s a need to send a turbulence alert, this can be done from the airline’s ops center. IATA also developed a web-based Turbulence Aware viewer tool that can be used in ops centers. “Then if they see something that might affect a flight, they can send up an ACARS message,” says King. (Because the viewer tool is web-based, it also can be accessed from the cockpit if the aircraft has connectivity). He emphasizes, however, that the value proposition is not the viewer tool, “it’s the raw data that users or airlines can consume however they want.”

Delta Air Lines was an early supporter of Turbulence Aware. “For most of Delta’s history the operation was dependent on manually-generated turbulence reports for determining the when and where of turbulence. We struggled to mitigate the threat due to sparse coverage and the subjective nature of turbulence reporting. However, over the past 15 years Delta has been successful in implementing automatic aircraft turbulence reporting on most of our fleet, in collaboration with the FAA, NCAR, Delta Meteorology and Delta Technical Operations. The technology enabled a paradigm shift from a legacy system of widely scattered, subjective reports to big data, but still provided incomplete coverage. IATA’s Turbulence Aware platform enables open sharing of real time turbulence reports across the global airline industry, so we are no longer limited to turbulence reports generated only by Delta aircraft. By incorporating Turbulence Aware data into pilot, dispatcher and meteorologist tools Delta has realized benefits to safety, customer comfort, schedule integrity and efficiency,” says Capt. Patrick Burns, Delta’s Vice President – Flight Operations & System Chief Pilot.

Vashchankova says: “We’re basically acting as a global, neutral data consolidator. We’re not trying to impose a proprietary application that is the only application through which they can use the data.” She notes that the data continues to be owned by the airline.

King, a former airline pilot with extensive experience on long haul international routes, highlights another operational benefit of Turbulence Aware: the ability to fly more efficient routings, saving fuel and cutting emissions. “The wind and temperature part of every data report is very useful for us when we are airborne to update our flight management computer (FMC). With this tool, I can look at aircraft ahead of me and above me. I can look at their actual wind and temperature reports and feed that into my FMC and it will provide me with  more optimized flight path predictions. If this tool is used operationally it will save injuries and it will also help with flight efficiency.”

Early on during the pandemic IATA recognized the extraordinary financial stress airlines were under and launched an initiative for airlines and meteorological services to access Turbulence Aware data on an extended free trial basis. This initiative has continued and King and Vashchankova are hoping to fill some geographic gaps in coverage. One focus is to attract some airlines in the Latin America region. IATA is currently in talks with some 30-40 potential users around the globe.

Echoing Delta’s Capt. Burns, Vashchankova sums up, “This is a paradigm shift. Now we’re using aircraft data [and] we’re giving you the precise location and intensity of turbulence, which just never happened before. It’s not just a product, it’s a paradigm shift in how turbulence is managed.”

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