Storm Eunice: Go-arounds and air traffic control25 February 2022
It’s no surprise to anyone these days that when a storm hits, travel disruption usually follows. Many people now understand why thunder and lightning can be problematic for air travel, but why did the wind of Storm Eunice last Friday cause such an impact and how do we deal with situations where aircraft are unable to land at their destination airport?
Wind is mainly a problem during landing. Strong winds can cause a multitude of challenges, ranging from larger gaps being needed between landing aircraft, to wind shear which can cause unstable approaches (I’m sure you’ve all seen the fascinating Big Jet TV footage by now!). If an aircraft can’t make a stable approach due to wind like we saw with Storm Eunice, the pilot may decide to ‘go-around’ where they will climb to a safe altitude and, in most cases, attempt another approach and landing.
In airspace that is already busy with other aircraft queuing to land, it’s our job to make sure the pilot can do that safely. When bad weather is forecast, we ‘regulate’ – effectively putting a cap on the amount of traffic in the airspace, to ensure there is more room to safely manoeuvre and to keep the workload manageable for our controllers.
Whilst re-attempting to land is often the safest and the most appropriate thing to do, it does mean that everyone else who may be in the landing queue will have to wait, ultimately increasing the delays and traffic complexity.
When a pilot initiates a go-around, the tower controller tells the approach controller at our Swanwick centre and they co-ordinate as necessary. At this point, the approach controller must decide where exactly in the queue they’ll fit the ‘go-around’ aircraft in, which can mean vectoring other arrivals to make space for the extra aircraft. One go around doesn’t create a massive workload increase, but when you have many in quick succession like we did with Eunice, the workload and complexity increases hugely.
To give you an idea of just how problematic Storm Eunice’s wind was for aircraft trying to land, there were nine go-arounds in a row at one point at Heathrow, and 40 in total between 07:00 and 14:00, when usually we might see one a day. Add in similar problems at other airports and you’re suddenly dealing with a very complex, dynamic and challenging environment.
In some situations of exceptionally strong winds, including crosswinds, a pilot may request a diversion rather than a go-around. The controller will relay this diversion request to their Group Supervisor who calls the airport to request the diversion and the airport must decide then whether they can accommodate an unexpected arrival.
Once the diversion is accepted, the controller is informed, and the aircraft will fly to its new destination, often requiring co-ordination with other controllers who are likely dealing with similar scenarios in their own airspace. It is not uncommon for an airport to refuse a diversion request and in these instances, the controller must inform the pilot and the pilot must select an alternative airport and the process starts all over again.
All of the above is exactly why all of our controllers are highly trained and so good at what they do. Their priority, above everything else, as well as your pilot’s, is to keep you safe. Yes, sometimes that means you may land at Birmingham or Geneva instead of Southampton… but the main thing is that you and that aircraft get back on the ground safely.
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Thumbs up to all the unseen safety heroes (Air Traffic Controllers), it is indeed not an easy job considering the wind components and high traffic volume one can only imagine. Keep up the excellent work. Safety first.