Extreme weather the new normal? What this means for air travel

Ottawa Airport’s chief priority is always safety first
Diverted aircraft at YOW  July 31, 2017. PHOTO BY Jan Jasinski
Diverted aircraft at the Ottawa Airport on July 31, 2017. (Photo by Jan Jasinski)

As climate change brings unexpected and often sudden changes in weather, the impact on airports, airlines and ultimately air travellers can be significant. 

Lightning

Rain may dampen travel plans, but thunderstorms can disrupt them. Metal, people and lightning can be a deadly combination; to safeguard passengers and employees, the airport uses a sophisticated lightning warning system. When activated, the system sends alerts to the airport campus advising of the risk level. A “ground stop” is the highest level, temporarily halting all airside activity until safe conditions return.

Recent storms 

Ottawa has seen its fair share of storms this summer. In addition to an incredible 108 rain days by the end of August, a violent storm mid-month caused downed trees, golf ball-sized hail, backed up sewers and debris over airport property. Thankfully, it was short-lived, and it did not impact YOW flight schedules. Numerous storms in other major cities throughout the summer, however, resulted in numerous flight disruptions and diverted flights to Ottawa.  

Diversions

Over the past several years, severe summer and winter storms have caused irregular operations at airports across the continent. 

Airports and airlines work closely to maximize aviation safety and security; however, each has its own role to play during irregular operations and diversions. The Airport Authority is responsible for providing major infrastructure to facilitate air carrier movement and passenger processing, namely runways, taxiways, aprons and terminals.

Airlines, and by extension, their third-party contracted ground agents, are responsible for passenger processing, baggage services, aircraft marshalling and refuelling, among other activities. The airlines and/or their agents are also responsible for providing all ground service equipment such as air stairs, ground power units, airside baggage equipment, and aircraft pushback/tow vehicles.

A key airline responsibility is determining whether an aircraft will “gas and go”, which is weather permitting, or deplane passengers at the divert location. There are many factors that must be considered in these decisions such as flight origin and crew work-time limits. For instance, international arriving flights have Canada Customs requirements. The Airport Authority will always do what it can to help facilitate an airline’s decided course of action.

Looking ahead

If current weather trends continue, more disruptions can be expected. Because YOW sits between two major international hubs, it will likely be on the receiving end of more diversions in the future. While it’s impossible to predict when or how many unexpected flights may be diverted, the Authority will continue to work with its partners to make sure it provides the support needed by all airlines, whether scheduled or unexpected. 

Safety first

Mark Laroche, Ottawa International Airport Authority President and CEO, sums it up best: “Safety is always the airport’s first priority. Whether ensuring that airport employees are safe during severe weather events, or facilitating smooth operations during irregular operations, the Authority is committed to providing every guest with the best possible experience.”