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    Airlines' nemesis: lightning

    Thunderstorms can cause delays on the ground as well as in the air, and July is Florida's peak month for lightning.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 30, 2001


    TAMPA -- The past 10 days of summer thunderstorms are easing the drought a bit, but they are playing havoc with airline travel -- and it is likely to get worse.

    It might affect you in ways you didn't expect. Even if it's safe for a plane to fly, it might not be safe for crews to service it, which can leave passengers on hold on the ground.

    When there is lightning near an airport, airlines close down their baggage-handling, fueling and maintenance operations to safeguard employees who work outside.

    That means the person in the yellow slicker with the two funky red flashlights isn't going to be there to guide a plane to its gate. Nor is there going to be anybody in the truck that pushes planes back from their gates.

    Bottom line: You sit and wait, either in the terminal or on board an aircraft parked somewhere off a taxiway.

    "In the scheme of things, it's a minor operational annoyance," said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. "There's nothing to be done for operational delays."

    July is, far and away, the busiest month of the year in Florida for lightning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

    And the hottest spots in Florida for lightning strikes are in a line along the west coast from Cedar Key to Fort Myers and then east across the state into the Orlando area. The Tampa Bay region is at ground zero.

    In the 10-year period from 1986 to 1995, NOAA recorded 25-million lightning flashes statewide, concentrated in June, July and August. Long-range forecasts suggest that the rest of the summer will bring near-normal rainfall.

    "Our typical summer rains come from afternoon and evening thunderstorms," said Rick Davis, an aviation forecaster with the National Weather Service in Ruskin. "If we are expecting normal rainfall, then we're going to get normal thunderstorms and lightning. It's a way of life here."

    Though no one knows for certain how often operations in airline gate areas are suspended for lightning, Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines in Miami, said, "It can be as many as 30 times a day for us, although some closures might last only a matter of minutes."

    Individual airlines make decisions on outdoor operations. "The computer systems have lightning detectors that read out the distance and radius of each storm and the scope of the lightning," said Tom Jewsbury, director of operations at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. "We relay the information to each tenant, and each one decides when and if to close down operations."

    The fact that the Pinellas airport does not have passenger boarding ramps, meaning passengers must go out into the weather to board and leave planes, really makes no difference in a thunderstorm, Jewsbury said. "If the gates are closed, the airplanes aren't going anywhere in or out," he said. "Ramps wouldn't make a difference either way."

    When a flight can't pull up to the gate because of the weather, it counts against an airline's on-time record if the delay lasts more than 15 minutes beyond the scheduled arrival.

    Even worse, it can cause flight cancellations if long waits during shutdowns mean flight crews must clock out for the day rather than go over the duty limits set by the FAA.

    "A lot of airlines schedule as if these weather delays never happen," Mazor said. "If a crew is going to leave the airport and head for a hotel and a night's sleep, a long wait to come to the gate isn't a problem. But if they have a quick turnaround to another flight, and the rules say they've been on duty too long, they have to time out and maybe leave a flight stranded."

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