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
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
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