As You Take to the Skies this Thanksgiving, WindTracer®’s Got Your Back

WindTracer Travel

Thanksgiving: It’s the holiday where we gather with our families to eat too much turkey, partake in family festivities and…enjoy headache-inducing travel at many U.S. airports.

Statistically, the day preceding Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the entire year. According to AAA, out of the nearly 47 million folks traveling to celebrate the holiday this year, more than 3.6 million will take to the skies. With such a high volume of travelers, flight delays are sure to abound—something that WindTracer® aims to change.

Lockheed Martin’s WindTracer system uses light detection and ranging (LIDAR) to provide high-fidelity measurements of wind hazards and wake turbulence, ultimately boosting airport efficiency and increasing flight safety. Since its initial deployment at Hong Kong International Airport in 2002, WindTracer now operates at major airports worldwide in North America, Asia and Europe.

Measuring the Invisible

We can feel wind, but we can’t see it. So how exactly do we measure it?

The answer lies in LIDAR technology. WindTracer continuously scans the surrounding airspace by transmitting eye-safe pulses of infrared light—a LIDAR beam—that reflects off of naturally occurring aerosol particles suspended in the air. WindTracer compares the transmitted light with the infrared light returned back off of the particles and uses the data to determine both wind speed and direction.

This technology holds great potential for reducing travel delays. WindTracer’s ability to detect potentially unsafe changes in wind speed and direction nearly 10 miles away enables proactive airport configuration management. Air traffic controllers can reposition aircraft already in flight well in advance of a wind change. For travelers at select airports, this means big-time reductions in flight delays due to wind conditions.


Setting a New Standard

In addition to predicting impending wind changes and hazards, WindTracer has also been instrumental in the study of wake vortices. Much like a boat on the surface of the ocean, a plane leaves air “wakes” in its trail as it flies. These wakes can be potentially hazardous for aircraft in close proximity, an issue that has plagued airports since the beginning of commercial flight.

For years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spaced aircraft strictly based on weight categories and not detailed understanding of the wake vortices they create. In recent years, the FAA has introduced a series of practices intended to make flying more efficient, one of which is called wake re-categorization. This new practice—highly influenced by WindTracer’s measurement of wake vortices—involves spacing aircraft according to the wakes they create, instead of how much they weigh. This minimizes aircraft separation intervals, which means more efficient arrival and departure times with fewer delays for passengers.

The initial impact of this new standard has been staggering. The concept, first tested in 2012 with FedEx delivery planes at the company’s hub in Memphis, resulted in a 20 percent increase in airport handling capacity, according to FAA statistics. On the passenger front, Delta Airlines at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport has reported up to a 24 percent reduction in departure queue delays as of February 2015.

With its unparalleled accuracy in measuring aircraft wake vortices, WindTracer’s data played a major role in the decision to update wake separation standards. After their initial successes, the new wake re-categorization guidelines are being gradually implemented at airports like Louisville in Kentucky, Cincinnati and Houston’s Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports across the United States. Next, the FAA has its sights set on implementing the same standards at John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports.

So, for this year’s frequent fliers and future Thanksgiving travelers, fewer flight delays with WindTracer are certainly something they can be thankful for.