How Storms Impact Airport Operations

When the calendar turns to March each year, I immediately start thinking Spring has arrived. Until, that is, I walk outside in the morning to find a frost-covered windshield on my car awaiting a good scrape. By the end of the month, that frustrating ritual gives way to cool mornings, warm days, pollen and, of course, Spring thunderstorms. 

The sound of thunder and the flash of lighting during the Spring in our region is as common as the sight of dogwood trees in bloom. While most storms give the airport nothing more than a good soaking, some do become severe and affect our operations in various ways. So, as part of Severe Weather Awareness Week in North Carolina, here are some ways severe weather can affect your travel through RDU.

Short flight disruptions. Short arrival and departure delays can be expected based on the location, size and height of the storm cell. The Air Traffic Control Tower and aircraft pilot make the call on these delays as well as rerouting aircraft in the sky when the storm crosses flight paths.

Fueling is suspended. Most passengers never notice this impact, but when lighting is detected within three miles of RDU, the fueling of aircraft is temporarily suspended per federal rules and as a general measure of safety. We have a web-based weather monitoring system that alerts us to lightning strikes in various distances from the airport.  Also, airlines have varying policies about whether loading luggage and other aircraft servicing continues during a thunderstorm.

Severe storms have a brief impact on airport operations.

Severe storms have a brief impact on airport operations. including servicing aircraft.

Boarding and deplaning aircraft. I often see tweets this time of year from passengers who have landed but can’t deplane an aircraft because of storm activity over RDU.  Each airline has its own policy about allowing boarding or deplaning during storms. These are due to general safety concerns for passengers and airline employees.

We receive diversions. When an inbound plane can’t land due to a storm affecting an airport, it most often circles at a safe distance until the storm clears. But, if the storm is a slow-mover, the plane may have to divert to another airport to refuel. We receive many diverted flights every year for this reason. Some are even international carriers. In my time at RDU, I have seen both British Airways and Qantas flights on the ground due to weather elsewhere. These flights usually refuel and continue on to their final destinations.

After the storm has passed, our Operations staff also checks the airfield following storms making sure all of our equipment is safe and working properly. Fortunately, the impacts at RDU from severe thunderstorms are generally short-lived. If you’re ever at RDU waiting for your flight and a storm passes by, you can know it likely won’t be long before you’ll hear the words, “now boarding.”

About Andrew Sawyer

Andrew Sawyer is the External Communication Specialist for the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority and is the main writer for RDU’s website, electronic communication and airport publications. He’s also the primary face behind RDU’s social media channels. Andrew also assists with many other things, from media relations to event planning. In fact, he has an advanced degree in "other duties as assigned."
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