Friday, August 19, 2011

Why I'm Spending So Much Time on the St. Louis and Omaha Airline Incidents

Earlier this summer, outdoor stages collapsed during thunderstorms in El Reno and Tulsa, OK, and in Ottawa, ON. There were no fatalities.

Saturday evening, six died as a result of a thunderstorm-generated gust front moving across the Indiana State Fairgrounds causing the stage to collapse.

Yesterday, five died in Belgium when a stage collapsed during a violent thunderstorm.

The first three collapses should have prompted changes in the way outdoor events are handled. They did not.

Last night, airline passengers were on board aircraft when 92 mph winds and baseball-sized hail ripped the roof off the Omaha airport. A tornado watch and severe thunderstorm warning were in effect. A Southwest Airlines pilot was struck by the hail on a jetway and is hospitalized in serious condition. Seven aircraft were damaged by the hail and I believe the cumulative loss to the airlines will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

There was a similar event in St. Louis when a tornado struck Lambert International Airport. Both a tornado watch and tornado warning were in effect well before the tornado arrived. Passengers were stuck on airplanes for hours and some described a terrifying ordeal. There were no injuries. Airlines had millions of dollars of losses.

See a pattern here?

As documented extensively on this blog, in my book Warnings, and in a two-part series by The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings are not part of the aviation weather database and are not used by the airlines for safety and operational purposes. I see no indication that is going to change.

Just like with the stage collapses, Mother Nature seems to be warning us to pay attention but we are not. My fear: We may be running out of warnings.


  1. It appears that this is a worthwhile discussion to have. I was at a baseball game in Wichita Wed night when a storm approached from the SW. The heaviest part of the storm went to the south of town and really it pretty much fell apart before it got to us. But we were under a severe thunderstorm warning for at least a little while. To my knowledge no announcement was made of that fact. I don't know what, if any, resources were being used to make decisions by the ball park staff. I have some training as a weather spotter and based on what I saw both in the sky and on my smart phone radar, I wasn't too concerned. But, given all of these other events that have happened recently, it did make me wonder.

  2. The FAA is well known for using human blood as the currency for system or rule changes. Unfortunately, many times this also applies to other parts of society as well. If your priority is schedule (be it an airplane or concert) this affects your decision making. Only when you cannot ignore it anymore will the situation be addressed, much like microbursts were ignored by the aviation industry.

    This change will require the implementation of policies and procedures to handle these incidents. Resource requirements defined to make sure the correct information is available, and performance requirements within contracts to make sure that the correct priorities are set and followed. Not an easy task, but one that should be started now by everyone responsible for these types of activities.