Hyperlocal weather forecasting service improves airline operations

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T0910ClimaCell_HR
ClimaCell's granular precipitation data overlaid with flight tracking.

One morning last February, conventional weather forecasters were calling for an 11 a.m. end to a snowstorm that was hitting Boston Logan Airport. But the operations team at JetBlue, aided by a new interface that forecasts weather at a hyperlocal level, was looking at a more optimistic prognostication, that the storm would end closer to 8 a.m.

Aided by that forecast, JetBlue was able to avoid making unnecessary cancellations that morning, thereby saving money and avoiding inconveniences to passengers, according to senior vice president of customer experience Ian Deason.

The JetBlue team benefited that day from its partnership with the start-up ClimaCell, a Boston-based company that uses data gleaned from cellular sites, as well as proprietary data sources it won't identify, to forecast weather on a minute-by-minute basis at specific locations, such as airports.

Deason said such forecasts have enabled JetBlue to detect fog banks that aren't visible on traditional radar and to gain better knowledge of when storm lines will change from ice to snow. 

As a result, the carrier has improved its ground operations, saving money on items such as de-icing fluid while also keeping workers safer by exposing them less frequently to the risks that come with being on a tarmac in inclement weather.

"Operating in the most constrained airspace in the world, anything that we can do that gives a higher level of predictability we know will improve our operations," Deason said. JetBlue's two largest bases are in Boston and New York, and 70% of JetBlue's operations touch the heavily trafficked Northeast corridor. 

After JetBlue tested the product in Boston last summer, JetBlue's Technology Venture arm decided to invest in ClimaCell. Later, JetBlue expanded the product use to New York JFK in February 2018. Since June, JetBlue has rolled out ClimaCell technology in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Newark, New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National, Deason said.

The carrier estimates that ClimaCell has the potential to save it as much as $25,000 to $50,000 per month at each of its 10 largest bases by assisting with better operational decision making. 

JetBlue isn't ClimaCell's only customer. CEO Shimon Elkabetz said the company is also working with two other large U.S. airlines, though he declined to name them.

Elkabetz said the HyperCast Aviation interface can provide street-level, minute-by-minute forecasts for up to six hours. 

The interface also tells airport operators what is already happening on runways and at airfields. Elkabetz said radar only correlates with what is happening on the ground 50% to 80% of the time. The ClimaCell interface, he said, correlates with the actual ground weather 90% to 95% of the time. 

Having such knowledge, for example, can help airlines keep crews inside during periods when the dangerous layer of transparent, thin ice known as black ice forms. 

Driving the forecasting technology is the vast array of wireless signals that are transmitting at any given time. ClimaCell analyzes how those signals are being impacted by the weather and the direction in which those impacts are moving. 

Indeed, said aviation analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co., the existence of hundreds of thousands of cellular sites across the U.S. has set the stage for innovations in airfield weather forecasting the likes of which haven't been seen since the mid-1980s, when airports began placing Doppler radar toward the approach end of major runways to better detect wind shear and the intense downdrafts known as microbursts.

Microforecasting, Mann said, should enable airports to keep the ramp open longer before a storm and open it sooner after a storm, meaning less time when activities like baggage loading and fueling are off limits.

Elkabetz said ClimaCell's next step will be to unveil a lightning-prediction model, which he expects to release any day. "It gives a pretty reliable forecast for up to 30 minutes," he said. 

Thus far, Deason said, it's too soon to say whether or not ClimaCell's forecasting will markedly improve JetBlue's on-time performance, which lags most of the U.S. airline industry. 

But whatever benefits the technology results in as far as operational efficiency, Deason said he's most enthusiastic about the HyperCast Aviation interface's ability to keep employees and flyers safe.

"As an operator, that's what gets me excited," he said.

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