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Support for aviation

Dr Sushil Sharma
Thursday, February 08, 2018

METEOROLOGICAL services for aviation are the subject for discussion in this article.

The article "Great leaps in aviation" (FT 11/1/18) considered how human beings could not escape the thought of great human feat, endeavour and accomplishment in the field of aviation science and technology — especially when flying in a "Queen of the Skies" 747-8I Boeing jumbo jet, a Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, or a "Superjumbo" Air Bus A380 plane.

Air travel between nations led to the importance, support and standardisation of safe operations of international flights; which in 1944 saw the drafting of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, and its ratification in 1947.

This created the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as an agency of the United Nations (UN) and provided the mechanism for international agreement on all issues related to civil aviation.

The convention had 18 annexes establishing standards for areas such as air traffic control, navigation systems and communications systems. Important to meteorologists is Annex 3-Meteorological Service for International Air Navigation, which is the subject of this article. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) became a specialised agency of the UN in 1951.

ICAO and WMO soon established working arrangements that set out responsibilities when it came to meteorological services for aviation. The relationship is theoretically simple: ICAO establishes the requirements for meteorological services to international aviation and WMO establishes the manner to meet these requirements and sets standards for service delivery.

The international aviation user organisations like the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations (IFALPA), the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) and the International Council of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (IAOPA) — communicate their meteorological services needs to the ICAO; and the WMO works with its own membership of the National Meteorological Services (NMSs) to deliver these services.

The relationship between aviators and meteorologists is very old and always played a major complementary role for each of the professions. In the lead-up to the first controlled powered flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903, the aviators requested and scrutinised US Weather Bureau Data, and selected Kitty Hawk after conferring with the government meteorologist there. The next 50 years saw incredible advances in the technology of aviation and in the development of meteorology as a science.

For all NMSs, aviation is more than just another client requiring weather services. Part of the arrangements between aviation and meteorology is the well-established and internationally co-ordinated practice of cost recovery for services rendered. This can be a controversial issue, although the importance of serving aviation and recovering costs for those services should not be underestimated.

In some cases, aviation provides up to 80 per cent of the budget of small NMSs, so the aviation client deserves to be well served.

The national Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) or, in some cases, the air navigation service provider, is a primary user of weather services, ensuring efficient flight operations and aviation safety. Many NMSs are also designated as the meteorological authority and are thus responsible for regulating the provision of weather services for international air navigation.

There is an increasing trend in some regions for the CAA or a similar authority to also take up the regulatory role for the weather service provision, as well as setting the level of service and the cost to be recovered by the NMS for delivery.

With the significant increase in air traffic over various regions in the past decade, demands for increasing consultations and new types of weather products by the airport management and air traffic management (ATM) stakeholders are increasing. This has become a critical issue for the major regional hubs in Europe, North America and Asia. Provision of added-value services to assist in decision-making and advance planning to mitigate the disruption of operations by high-impact weather such as tropical cyclones, winter snowstorms and icing is increasingly welcomed by airlines, ATM and airport management.

Airfield weather observations (meteorological aerodrome reports) routinely provide aviation-critical weather information using the concise and easy-to-interpret METAR code format.

Reports of significant changes in the weather that take place in between routine observations are also reported as Special Weather Reports in the SPECI code format. A two-hour forecast known as a "Trend" can also be appended to METAR messages for selected aerodromes to indicate any significant changes expected in the two hours immediately following the time of the report.

METARs are produced by staff trained in accordance with WMO Aeronautical Meteorological Observer (AMO) guidelines. Most AMOs are meteorological support staff, although there has been an increasing tendency for this role to be fulfilled by Air Traffic Control (ATC) operations staff and, more recently, by technologically advanced automatic weather observing equipment.

METARs are supplemented by PIREP reports. These are pilot reports of the actual weather conditions encountered by an aircraft-in-flight.

A PIREP is usually generated when a potentially hazardous weather phenomenon is encountered, for example, severe aircraft icing, turbulence or wind shear. METARs and PIREPs are used by meteorologists, pilots, and Air Traffic Control staff and flight dispatchers for the purposes of monitoring, flight planning and safety.

The aviation sector is a major meteorological customer and, historically, most of the developments made in forecasting have been for the improvement of meteorological services to aviation.

Advances in technology and aircraft design, together with the relentless drive for ever more efficient and safe operations have resulted in a requirement for increasingly accurate, varied and customer-focused meteorological products and services, particularly for the first 36 hours of the forecast period.

Aeronautical Meteorological Forecasters are qualified and trained in accordance with WMO guidelines and the challenge that they face daily in weather monitoring and forecasting is evident in the range and scope of the forecasts they produce.

For example, an Aerodrome Meteorological Office forecaster will focus on aerodrome warnings and forecasts that are vital for flight safety, such as the Terminal Aerodrome Forecast (TAF).

A Meteorological Watch Forecaster, meanwhile, has responsibilities for national and/or regional forecasts and for generating SIGMETs/AIRMETs for warning of hazardous en-route aviation weather.

ICAO, in co-ordination with WMO, has established the World Area Forecast System (WAFS) with two designated Centre's for providing specialist global aviation weather services. World Area Forecast Centre (WAFC) London and WAFC Washington are responsible for producing global aviation wind, temperature and significant weather forecasts in support of flight planning, mainly for flights above 24,000 feet.

Equipped with satellite reception systems and/or access to internet service, aerodrome meteorological offices are able to receive the WAFS digital forecast products for compilation of flight documents and provision of weather information to suit the requirements of airlines and flight crews in flight planning and operations.

Operational aeronautical meteorological data (OPMET), including METARs, TAFs and SIGMETs/AIRMETs, are disseminated in real-time over ICAO-approved regional and global telecommunication networks, such as the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network (AFTN). The associated international coding protocols and formats are agreed between ICAO and WMO working groups.

Advanced meteorological services for aviation are the subject for discussion in the next — second part of this article, where we look at the advances in meteorological techniques and the quality, challenges, efficiency, regional and global cooperation issues — towards advanced meteorological services for aviation.

* Dr Sushil K. Sharma is a WMO accredited class 1 professional meteorologist and an associate professor of meteorology at FNU. Views expressed are his and not of this newspaper or his employer.

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