Eyes on the Skies – Watching the Weather Important at CLT

A funnel cloud was spotted near CLT’s runways during severe weather in 2020. Photo provided. 

Sept. 29, 2023 – At Charlotte Douglas International Airport we always have our eyes on the skies. Beyond takeoffs and landings, we are constantly keeping an eye on the weather forecast. Making sure the Airport is ready for whatever comes our way is a massive team effort.

Overseeing the team effort is Michael Tobin, emergency operations manager for CLT. We asked him to give us a peek inside how one of the world’s busiest airports prepares for the possibility of severe weather.

What types of weather systems do you track?

“Anything that could be a potential threat to CLT. It doesn’t have to be a hurricane to have a major impact on Airport operations. Typical summer thunderstorms can force airlines to cancel or delay flights, which can wreak havoc on CLT operations.”

Where do you get your weather information?

“The National Weather Service is my go-to source for any, and all, weather-related information. I’m on many email chains with them and they are very good at pushing out information as early as possible on potential weather threats. I also follow numerous weather experts on social media to get their perspectives.

“I take the National Weather Service data, analyze it, and try to put it in layman’s terms. Then, I funnel that knowledge to our staff and key stakeholders to let them know whether there could be a threat to CLT.”

Who are those stakeholders?

“At CLT, it’s basically anyone who has boots on the ground to keep the Airport operating. That includes security operations, airside operations that work with the FAA to keep planes moving, terminal operations that manage the customer experience from the curb to the jet bridge, as well as our landside operations that manage parking, ground transportation and busing.

“Beyond our teams, we also share information with our airline partners, as well as the businesses and restaurants that operate at CLT.”

When do you start actively planning for a severe weather event?

“When the possibility of severe weather turns into a probability, Airport Emergency Management along with Airside Operations and the Airport Operations Center (AOC) actively monitor the weather conditions and prepare as appropriate. For most severe weather events (snow, ice tornado threat, etc.) Emergency Management and the AOC will continue to send out information in a document called a ‘sit rep,’ or situational report. It includes a quick synopsis of the weather situation, any local or state emergency declarations, and other significant information. I also include a summary of what all our partners are doing to prepare so it’s easy to find in one document. With a couple days’ notice we can put all the pieces together.”

How prepared for severe weather is CLT compared to other airports?

“We are certified as a Storm Ready Airport with the National Weather Service. The National Weather Service did an assessment to make sure we have all the appropriate plans, procedures, and communications in place. Only 31 airports with commercial flights are certified, and Raleigh-Durham International Airport is the only other airport in North Carolina on the list. We’ve been in this program for several years. It’s another level of assurance in the emergency management world that we’ve gone through the appropriate process and procedures with the experts who say, ‘yes, you are ready for severe weather.’”

Who decides to cancel flights?

“The airlines look at the forecast and determine if they must reroute or cancel flights to keep people safe. When storms are coming, the airlines are extremely proactive in cancelling flights, rerouting them or making other changes to minimize the impact.”

When do you decide if the Airport has to close?

“The Airport NEVER closes. Flights may be cancelled, or we might have to pause take offs and landings, but our doors are always open. Ultimately, the airlines make sure people get from point A to point B safely. But when passengers are delayed here, we are more than happy to work with the airlines to accommodate them. We’ll always have personnel here and we make sure the lights stay on.

“I think about how we can accommodate passengers if the airlines start cancelling flights. If for some reason there is a mass cancellation event, Airport Operations comes together and implements our plans and procedures to support the traveling public and the airlines. Can we house passengers in the terminal? Do we have enough supplies? Do we have concessions staying open overnight? And if so, how many and where are they located?

“The Airport is very much a transient population. People are here for a very short time. If they must stay here for longer than expected, we will make them as comfortable as possible. It’s really priority number one.

“CLT is unique because 30% of our passenger traffic is local; 70% of our passenger traffic is from connections.

“Many people are not starting their journey here. They may have a two- or three-hour gap between flights. When that turns into a slight delay, or a severe delay, we look at it a little differently. These are not people who can go back home.”

Why do flights sometimes get diverted to Charlotte?

“It’s a very coordinated dance. When an airport is experiencing severe storms, they will sometimes pause all take offs and landings. It happened several times this summer. Atlanta had some bad storms, and the FAA issued a ground stop for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. That means no flights can take off for Atlanta. But aircraft that were already enroute need somewhere to go. We end up taking many of them for at least a couple of hours until the storms pass. We fuel the aircraft and send them on their way.”

What if there is a tornado warning?

“It’s a step-by-step process. If we go under a tornado warning and we see there’s a potential path for it coming to the Airport, we’ll make announcements in the terminal that everyone should seek shelter appropriately, stay away from glass and open spaces.

“By our definition, all restrooms are considered shelters. Also, we relocate people to the corridors and hallways that are away from open glass. Fortunately, with five concourses, we have enough space to accommodate people. It’s also incumbent on the airlines to stop the flights. The FAA takes care of that.”

Has the Airport been struck by lightning?

“Lightning has struck a runway, and it blew out a piece of the pavement. Our fantastic airfield maintenance crew went out and patched it quickly to get us back up and running.”

What do you want travelers to know?

“We can’t control the weather, but we can be prepared for it. Know that CLT has the professional staff to handle anything and everything that may happen. We have the plans in place and want to make it as seamless an operation as possible.

“Just like our customers, when I travel with my family, I want to get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. If there’s an emergency along the way, it’s understandable. But we always have a backup plan for what we will do if our travels are interrupted, and I encourage others to have a secondary plan as well.

“The weather is what it is. We can’t control it. All we can do is stay alert, prepare ourselves, respond to it and, if necessary, recover as quickly as we can.”

Charlotte Douglas International Airport also has already started planning for winter weather. Stay tuned to learn more.