Space Weather and Aviation

Space Weather and Aviation
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Executive Summary

As cross-polar traffic increases, the aviation industry is becoming more aware of the impacts space weather can have on operations. (Space weather refers to the conditions on the Sun and in the solar wind, magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere that can influence the performance and reliability of space-borne and ground-based technological systems and can endanger human life or health.) The industry is primarily concerned about risks during high-latitude (>50°N) and polar operations (>78°N) since impacts of space weather can be greatest in these regions. Effects include disruption in High Frequency (HF) communications, satellite navigation system errors, and radiation hazards to humans and avionics. These concerns not only apply to current operations, but become even more important at all latitudes when considered within the framework for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen is an interagency initiative to transform the U.S. air transportation system by 2025). Additionally, with the potential space tourism and intercontinental space flight markets, these risks are equally important to the commercial space transportation industry.

Economic Issues

In the last several years, airspace over Russia and China has opened up to commercial traffic, allowing for polar routes between North America and Asia. These flight paths provide a shortcut to Asia, reducing travel time and operating costs (e.g., fuel, delays, reroutes). For example, a United Airlines operations manager stated that if the polar routes are not available, the additional operating costs and penalties for an unscheduled stop or reroute can escalate significantly, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars per flight. The economics of cross-polar air traffic will become even more important as travel is expected to increase sharply in anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and will continue to grow.

Operational Issues

Space weather phenomena (geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, solar flare radio blackouts, solar radio bursts, and cosmic radiation) can impact aviation operations. Effects include degradation or loss of HF radio transmission and satellite navigation signals; navigation system disruptions; and avionics errors. Dispatchers need space weather forecasts for flight planning at high latitudes, especially for the polar routes. However, operators want additional products that assist in decision making.

Safety Issues

Impacts on aviation operations can directly impact safety, which is the primary concern of air carriers. In addition, solar radiation and cosmic rays can also impact human health. However, current medical research and epidemiological studies are inconclusive regarding the actual impacts to aircrew over the length of a flying career. This issue is a concern for the aviation and sub-orbital space industries, and more accurate data and more extensive studies are needed to assist medical research in identifying the long-term health effects.

Policy Workshop

To date, there are still a lot of gaps between the development of space weather information and the needs of the aviation industry. In response to this need, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Policy Program and SolarMetrics conducted a policy study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research key policy issues governing effective application of space weather information to the aviation industry. In addition, AMS and SolarMetrics organized a workshop in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Environment Center (SEC), NSF, and NextGen/Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), on November 29–30, 2006 in Washington DC that led to recommendations on how to improve the safety and operations of the aviation system through better integration of space weather information. The policy study and workshop revealed that there are four main policy issues that need to be addressed to ensure the best use of current space weather information: communication, standardization of information and regulations, education and training, and cost benefit and risk analysis.


Participants agreed on a set of findings and recommendations, which are discussed in detail within this report. Here is a summary of the recommendations:

Communication of Space Weather Information

Communication is key in integrating observations and forecasts into operations; the information needs to be understandable and disseminated in a timely manner to the aviation industry. Within the U.S., aviation terrestrial weather services are provided to non-military aircraft primarily by NOAA, FAA, and the private sector. While the same channels for dissemination of space weather information are available in principle, communication varies. Dispatchers receive space weather information from in-house meteorologists, private sector companies, and NOAA SEC alerts and forecasts, or go directly to the NOAA SEC website. The current FAA system that distributes meteorological information in text cannot distribute graphical products required for the ease of interpreting space weather information. Currently, many aviation operators find space weather information to be too technical and prefer products that aid in decision making.

Recommendation: The aviation industry needs to clearly define its requirements for space weather information and how it is incorporated into the operational decision making process. The adhoc Cross Polar Trans East Working Group should lead the process for defining these requirements, ensuring that all key stakeholders are present at requirements discussions.

Recommendation: The Cross Polar Trans East Working Group should broaden its membership by inviting NOAA SEC and the International Space Environment Services (ISES) to join in order to bring in more space weather expertise.

Recommendation: ISES should ensure that its Regional Warning Centers will deliver space weather information in an internationally agreed upon standardized format as defined by the aviation user requirements.

Recommendation: The National Space Weather Program should introduce new elements to increase interaction between the aviation community and the space weather research and service provider community.

Recommendation: The National Space Weather Program should incorporate aviation user requirements into its space weather research planning. Internationally, ISES should ensure that aviation user requirements are incorporated into other national space weather research programs.

Recommendation: The JPDO should ensure involvement of all the necessary subteams and ensure greater involvement of NOAA SEC in the planning process. The JPDO should also coordinate space weather requirements with the Single European Sky ATM Research Programme (SESAR) and other similar global initiatives.

Standardization of Information and Regulations

Air travel is global and international cooperation is therefore essential. However, there is a lack of policy and process, both nationally and internationally, for use of space weather information in the aviation industry. Many operators are not willing to take official action based on space weather information unless they are provided more guidance on how to interpret the information. They want a level playing field. The FAA has not issued any specific requirements regarding space weather except that an operator must have effective communications capability with dispatch and air traffic control for all portions of the flight. Additionally, different U.S. and international groups are not in agreement on standards for space weather information.

Recommendation: The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), International Standards Organization (ISO), and ISES should harmonize their separate standards for aviation space weather information, products, and services based upon a set of requirements.

Recommendation: The FAA should provide aviation operations with a minimum set of requirements for making decisions based on space weather information.

Recommendation: The FAA should mandate that space weather information be received by aviation operators and included as part of their planning and briefing process.

Recommendation: The FAA should define a minimum set of requirements for incorporating space weather into operational training for aircrew (pilots and cabin crew), dispatchers, ATC, meteorologists, and engineers.

Recommendation: The FAA should revisit the Users Needs Analysis for space weather, under its current configuration of developing requirements for services.

Recommendation: The FAA should evaluate user requirements from the Cross Polar Trans East Working Group and the NextGen Joint Planning and Development Office for integrating into requirements definition and investment analysis.

Education and Training

Overall, the aviation industry does not understand space weather effects or its impacts on operations. This inhibits awareness of the potential risks involved, and makes it difficult to get key industry stakeholders interested in education and training, which is needed at all levels.

Recommendation: Professional societies, such as the AMS, should work with the FAA, NOAA SEC, and ISES to develop aviation space weather training curricula for aviation operators and meteorologists.

Recommendation: Professional societies, such as the AMS, should work with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and ISES to develop aviation space weather education curricula for university students.

Recommendation: The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Qualification Standards for General Schedule Meteorology Series (GS-1340) should include space weather or space environment courses in the list of optional courses for meteorologists.

Recommendation: ISES, through its Regional Warning Centers, should identify what aviation space weather education material exists globally.

Recommendation: ISES, through its Regional Warning Centers, should become the global public portal for aviation space weather education.

Recommendation: The FAA should propose to ICAO that the U.S. guidance for aviation space weather training and education curricula be adopted by ICAO as guidance material.

Cost Benefit and Risk Analysis

Polar routes reduce both travel time and operating costs. The challenge is how to quantify the issues associated with HF communication loss, quantify the risks associated with the lack of information and the associated operational decisions, and develop policies that will not cost the industry more money.

In 2000, NAVCANADA conducted a feasibility study which identified 33 potential city pairs that could benefit from polar routes. Some examples of time savings in minutes and dollars per flight include (in Canadian dollars):

Atlanta – Seoul 124 minutes / $44,000 Boston – Hong Kong 138 minutes / $33,000 Los Angeles – Bangkok 142 minutes / $33,000 New York – Singapore 209 minutes / $44,000

Very little information is available on how much space weather is responsible for delays or reroutes on polar routes. The aviation industry needs a better understanding from scientific, engineering, and medical communities regarding risks.

Recommendation: The FAA should lead the aviation community in defining and collecting operational data that can be used to assess the different impact areas, cost of improved services, and return on investment. Specifically, analysis of impacts should be segmented into HF communications, navigation, radiation, and new modes (suborbital).

Recommendation: NOAA, DOD, and other U.S. government agencies should link aviation space weather cost benefit analysis to requirements for ongoing consistent data collection from ground and space (e.g., ACE, NPOESS, GOES).

Recommendation: The FAA should coordinate research studies focusing on the various aviation impact areas (health, avionics, navigation, and communications).