National / International News
Flight delays and cancellations cost airlines billions of dollars a year. But what if better weather data -- data gathered by planes themselves -- could help prevent unnecessary delays?
Turns out, that’s already happening.
Let’s start with the old-school way of collecting data for weather forecasts. It’s 6:30 in the morning at a National Weather Service post in Sterling, Virginia.
“What we’re doing now is getting the helium to flow into the balloon,” says meteorologist Kevin Witt as he inflates a six foot latex weather balloon.
These balloons float into the sky twice a day, from about 90 sites, carrying instruments that send back pressure, temperature, and humidity data. They go high – about 19 miles high – transmitting data as the balloon expands to the size of a small building and ultimately pops. The instrument, called a radiosonde, floats back to earth on a little orange parachute.
The government has been launching weather balloons in some form since the 1930s.
The NWS Sterling office is near Dulles International Airport, so Witt calls the tower before releasing the balloon.
It just so happens, there could be planes flying through Dulles that are also collecting weather data. The government has long partnered with airlines to measure temperature and wind during flights. More recently, Southwest Airlines and UPS Airlines have installed sophisticated sensors that measure water vapor, like balloons do.
But unlike balloons, which provide a data snapshot over a shorter time, planes create a moving picture as they take off and land, then take off and land again. They transmit humidity data every few seconds upon ascent, every few minutes at cruising altitude, and multiple times a minute while landing. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ascent and descent data are compiled into profiles for each flight, whether it's a long haul or a short jump.
“Without the aircraft observations, the models are only receiving data every 12 hours,” says Steve Pritchett, program manager for the National Weather Service Aircraft Observation Program.
Remember, weather balloons launch twice a day. So let’s say a thunderstorm is projected to hit Dulles at 3pm. A plane might send real time info that no, the air mass is drier -- No storm likely.
“And I don’t have to wait 12 hours to determine that,” Pritchett says. “I can see it because I have an observation coming in this hour from an aircraft.”
He says major airports in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Houston don’t even have upper-air balloon launches within one hundred miles. But they do have Southwest Airlines. Its chief meteorologist Rick Curtis says the company has equipped 87 planes with water vapor sensors, with 19 more in the pipeline. He says the technology is working.
“In late November of this past year, we were able to use that information to determine whether or not an ice storm was gonna affect Dallas,” he says.
That’s Dallas, Texas, not Dulles. Curtis says Southwest looked at the atmospheric data, saw less moisture and some warmer layers, then kept flying.
“It saved the mass, wholesale cancellations of an event like that,” he says. “Something that’s commonplace when you see an ice storm come to a southern city.”
And that saves money. Economist Kevin Neels of the Brattle Group worked on a study that found delays directly cost airlines $8.3 billion in 2007. That’s not including the cost to passengers.
“We estimated that the cost to the people was twice as much as the cost to the airlines,” he says.
Right now, the government pays for the water vapor sensors. Steve Pritchett of the National Weather Service says it’s worth it. He wishes all planes were equipped with them. The only drawback of relying on planes for data, he says, is he can’t tell them where to fly.
Municipal bonds are the sort-of boring financial tool that big institutional investors use to hedge their bets. But this week, the city of Denver is hoping to attract a totally different class of buyers for its bond sale.
The city is selling $500 “mini-bonds" to state residents, as a way to get locals literally invested in the community.
It’s a simple pitch for investors: buy a few of these mini-bonds, and in 14 years you’re guaranteed to double your money. In the meantime, the city gets funds to renovate two cultural attractions and build a new recreation center.
The yield is higher than what the city offers on traditional bonds, but Denver’s Chief Financial Officer Cary Kennedy believes the extra expense is worth it to keep the money in the state.
“We’re willing to offer this to the citizens of Colorado because we want to give them that investment opportunity,” Kennedy says. “And we also want them to feel like they can support these critical infrastructure projects.”
The concept of mini-bonds has been around for a while, but they’re rarely issued by governments. That’s in part because they can be a real headache to administer.
Lynnette Kelly, executive director of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, says the back-office costs can be significant for the issuer. The customer service needs of thousands of individual small investors can add up to quite a headache.
“My mother, for example, had a lot of mini-bonds from a public power district,” Kelly says. “She had questions all the time. You know, 'Where’s my interest check?' And, 'I think I lost my mini-bond, what do I do now?' All of those basic everyday questions have to be handled and they have to be handled really well.”
Investors can now find the answers to a lot of those questions online, making mini-bonds easier to manage.
And Denver is certainly betting on their popularity. It hopes to sell $12 million in mini-bonds in just five days.
This week, thousands of people interested in all sorts of hacking are gathering in Nevada. They're headed to two conferences, Black Hat and Defcon, which are well known to the cybersecurity industry. But a thriving ecosystem of other meet-ups, tear downs, and other tech events are happening in Vegas as well.
One of the meetings this week is the Password Con, a two day event.
Sophos Cybersecurity expert Chester Wisniewski describes the event as, “kind of all the global minds in security coming together to figure out this authentication problem.”
There is arguably enough happening on that front for there to be a separate conference on passwords alone.
The audience at the conference, according to Wisniewski, is “nerds of every security stripe” — criminal hackers, government spies, security professionals, and ethical hackers.
He says privacy and mobile are at the top of mind this year — the hacker side of the community is very interested in maintaining privacy, especially in the face of the continuing to unfold NSA revelations.
One of the country’s most successful regional grocery chains is holding a job fair on Monday. Massachusetts-based Market Basket is looking to replace employees who’ve been holding protests and asking customers to boycott its stores.
Two weeks into the rallies, it’s like the aftermath of a snowstorm in New England - dozens of Market Basket stores with slim pickings and few customers.
It's not low wages or high prices the workers are upset about; they just want their old boss back. Ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas famously kept prices low and paid a living wage, plus provided good benefits and profit-sharing. Now, workers and Market Basket customers alike worry the company's new leaders, under "Artie T's" cousin, will change all that.
"This is not a protest against the company, it’s a protest to save the company," says Thomas Kochan, Co-Director of MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research. "You have store managers, clerical employees, and warehouse workers all coalescing together to take this action. That's unprecedented."
Market Basket’s new CEOs say they'll welcome those workers back, and the company won't change its "unmatched compensation and benefits." But they warn that employees who keep up the protest could lose pay, and even their jobs.
At the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, Executive Director Katherine Smith says Market Basket has an obligation to its shareholders. But, she adds, the low cost chain won its edge in part by putting employees ahead of profits.
"More and more we see companies struggling with the question of not only am I helping to create the world I want to do business in, but also the world I want to live in," she says.
Whichever way Market Basket goes, Smith says CEOs around the country are watching.