Forensic meteorologist: “I believe bad weather is being used as an excuse”

Do airlines lie about their weather delays? Not only is the answer “yes” as I suggested in a recent column, but the airline industry almost always gets away with it. There’s no formal audit of weather delays by any government agency; the Transportation Department basically takes the airlines at their word. But not if Howie Altschule has something to say about it.

Altschule is a forensic meteorologist who can tell you with pinpoint accuracy about the weather conditions on the day of your flight — even if you traveled days, months or years ago. I recently asked Altschule to explain what’s going on with weather delays:

Q: What’s a forensic weather consultant?

Altschule: A forensic weather consultant is a meteorologist that specializes as an expert witness. A forensic meteorologist goes back and studies different types of past weather records in order to determine what the weather conditions were at a specific date, time and location in the past.

Q: Who do you work with?

Altschule: I usually work on weather-related lawsuits, accidents or insurance claims and other events where people need to know what the weather was.

Q: Is it possible to go back in time to determine the weather?

Altschule: Yes. Most people don’t realize that we can go back and get very detailed weather information and tell what was occurring on a particular date many years ago.

Q: Can you give me an example?

Altschule: A small sampling of some of the cases I’ve worked on includes murder trials, arson cases reportedly involving lightning, motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, slip and fall cases, boating accidents, work delays, flooding cases, Hurricane Katrina cases and many, many more. Right now, I work on close to 150 cases Nationwide and around the world. It is really amazing how detailed and precise we can be in telling what the weather was many years ago at a particular location.

Q: Are airlines playing the weather card more often?

Altschule: Yes, I do believe that bad weather is sometimes being used as an excuse for delays or cancellations when it really was not. I’ve heard many stories where flight delays or cancellations had occurred as a result of bad weather when the weather conditions really were not an issue.

Q: When an airline says a flight is delayed because of weather, what kind of options do passengers have?

Altschule: Well, I suppose it is depends on each person’s urgency to get home. The options are to either wait it out in the airport until the airlines get clearance to take off, cut your losses and stay in a nice, comfortable hotel for a night or get a rental car and drive.

Q: Really?

Altschule: I’ve done it before. Two summers ago, I checked into the airport in Buffalo, New York for my flight home just to find out that there were enormous flight delays due to the weather. So, I decided that it would actually be quicker and much less frustrating to rent a car and drive back to Albany, New York. I actually beat the flight back to Albany because it had to connect in Baltimore.

Q: Sounds like it would have been a bad idea to fly in that kind of weather.

Altschule: When there are legitimate flight delays due to bad weather, I do not like to fly. I would rather wait an extra day for nicer weather than fly dangerously in or near thunderstorms and snowstorms.

Q: And airlines feel the same way about bad weather?

Altschule: It seems to me that airlines don’t mind flying into or close to thunderstorms but the truth is, the storms can strengthen so rapidly that it could become very dangerous without warning. Come along with me on one of my Tornado Alley Chase Vacations in the spring and you will see how massive these storms can get. Until there are stricter regulations about steering clear of any thunderstorms, I will try my best to steer clear of those situations.

Q: The iPhone commercial with the pilot — truth or fiction?

Altschule: Absolutely true. Just about all real-time weather information is accessible on the internet and free of charge. On my
company’s Web site you will find links to all kinds of weather information including Doppler Radar images, weather warnings and advisories and hurricane reports.

Q: What should I look for?

Altschule: Look for the National Weather Service Doppler radar. These radar images, just like the ones you see on your local news, shows where it is raining or snowing and it’s intensity right at the time the image was taken. And the images are usually updated every five minutes. So, a pilot or anyone else with iPhone or internet access can get real-time weather updates.

Q: You’ve done this before?

Altschule: Yes, as a matter of fact, I did just that coming back from Orlando a few weeks ago. I had asked the gate manager if there were any delays on my flight back to Albany, New York and he said the flight may be canceled because of a snowstorm. I noticed he was looking at the radar so I directed him to my company’s Web site which has the more detailed Doppler radars on it, and we looked more closely at the Albany, New York radar and determined that the snow was still about 60 miles south of the airport.

Q: Did it work?

Altschule: The flight took off on time and landed in Albany ahead of schedule, thanks to a nice southerly jetstream that gave us a good tailwind.

Q: How can a weather consultant help someone who believes his or her flight has been canceled because of weather when, in fact, weather didn’t affect the flight at all?

Altschule: It’s very easy for me to determine if the weather played a roll in a flight delay or cancellation or not. If someone decides to sue the airline or ask the airline for a refund, then I can help verify exactly what the weather really was.

Q: How?

Altschule: My findings are based upon a detailed study of the past weather conditions and weather records that are available. If an airline makes a claim that bad weather at a certain location or along a route caused a delay or cancellation, I can access the data and determine if there is some truth to the bad weather claim or not.

Q: Where do you get that information from?

Altschule: Some records I would use include hourly surface observations that are located at all major airports, Doppler radar imagery that shows where the precipitation is and possible shear, past lightning strike data that can reveal whether lightning activity was present over a particular area and many other weather advisories and statements.

Q: Apart from hiring a weather consultant, is there any way of verifying that an airline is telling the truth about weather?

Altschule: People can go back and purchase some past weather information from the government but many of these records and Doppler radar images are either coded or difficult to comprehend. Many people have gone this route only to find out that they can’t understand the records and they end up hiring me to help them. As a forensic meteorologist, I do this kind of thing every day and know exactly what to look for.

Q: I would imagine your interpretation of the data would mean something to an airline, if not a court of law?

Altschule: Hiring a forensic meteorologist is worthwhile because not only do we gather the data, do the research and write a report on our findings, but we also prepare legal documents and testify in court for our attorney clients should it come to that. I’ve been accepted to testify as a forensic meteorologist in numerous courts around the country.

Q: And it’s possible to hold airlines accountable?

Altschule: In my opinion, the day has now come where we can verify what the past weather conditions were for any kind of case or lawsuit. Airlines that falsely use bad weather as an excuse may be in for a rude awakening should someone decide to challenge them.

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