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Unforeseen weather delays--there may be some relief in sight!

Explorer A
There are two certainties about flight delays: They are unpredictable (both in reason and duration) and frustrating. Aside from a mechanical problem or operational anomaly at a particular airport (e.g., boarding or flight "turn time" delay, power outage, out of service runway, navigational equipment not working, etc.), Mother Nature is typically the culprit that prevents us from operating our flight schedule in a timely manner (or not at all in more significant instances). Though we like to think she's an imposition on our way of doing business, the truth of the matter is we're trying to fly through "her space." And while we count on clear skies and gentle winds, waiting for the conditions to improve or navigating around bad weather is a common occurrence in air travel. As Captain Stark points out in his July 17 posting, the Northeast is a very busy air traffic corridor, and when severe weather moves across the region, the volume of traffic trying to utilize the available flight routes has to be reduced. This, of course, creates flight delays. In an effort to make these weather-related flight delays more manageable, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), working with representatives from all air carriers, has developed a new way to orchestrate the timing of all flights going to the most constricted airspace in the United States. The new way is called the Airspace Flow Program (AFP), and it was implemented in June 2006. Through the use of sophisticated forecasting technology and three dimensional flight analysis, AFP proactively "staggers" or revises the departure times for all flights scheduled to fly into predetermined sectors (or areas) of the Northeast. The intent is to put a plan in place (before the weather settles in) that keeps the traffic moving through an airspace that is expected to be significantly reduced and to ultimately prevent total gridlock. For example: If your flight was scheduled to travel from Chicago to Providence with a 4:20 PM Central Time departure, and a 45-minute AFP goes into effect at 12:00 PM Central Time for all flights thereafter to that part of the country, then your flight's new departure time would be 5:05 PM Central Time. The benefit to the traveler is two-fold. First, your flight now has a "known" departure time. The analogy that I like to use is: The Highway Patrol anticipates (for whatever reason) lengthy delays on the Interstate that you take from work to home. Rather than leaving your office at the usual time (5:00 PM) only to get caught in some unsuspecting two-hour traffic jam; the Highway Patrol advises you at noon to leave your office at 5:45 PM and take a secondary route. Which brings me to the second benefit. Though your departure time is later than you expected, and not necessarily the shortest distance between two points, your drive home is relatively uninterrupted, and the total delay is less than what it might have been if everyone tried using the same Interstate at the same time. As you can probably imagine, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system also benefits because manageable adjustments can be made while keeping the flights moving should the gameplan need to change. Naturally, an AFP is contingent upon the way the weather "plays out" as it moves across the forecasted region. As such, if a storm front stalls over an airport; becomes impassable; or takes longer than expected to move across an area, then the AFP will likely be modified. Our Company has also seen noticeable benefits in that AFP has reduced the number of indefinite gate holds (flights held at the gate by ATC without a given departure time) and lengthy taxiway congestion in departing and arriving cities after flights are released (or as we say, "when the flood gates are opened"). Currently, the AFP addresses flights to the Northeast. Like all airports across the country, flights departing from the Northeast are also subject to airport-specific groundstops and ground delay programs. Typically, local groundstops and delay programs happen because (let's say) a thunderstorm moves over the airport at the time a flight has been scheduled to depart. Just like in the analogy above, if a downpour occurs as you are getting ready to leave the office, you'll probably wait a few minutes to let the weather pass before you set out on your trip. These types of delays are separate from the AFP, and unfortunately, put additional minutes on your departure time. Thus, the aircraft on which you are waiting to arrive to turn your flight may be delayed inbound due to AFP and delayed outbound as a result of a local ground stop.No one is saying AFP is the cure-all to Mother Nature's wicked ways; but it is intended to help make weather-related flight delays more predictable, and hopefully, less frustrating for everyone.