Among the top trends noted in the 2021 Weather Survey was confirmation of the steady reduction in the role of flight service specialists in providing preflight weather briefings, as pilots shift to briefing themselves using online and mobile resources.
On the other hand, a human voice on the line is sometimes just what the doctor ordered: When pilots do call flight service, it is frequently because they are seeking a professional’s help extracting key elements of weather data—something an app can’t provide.
“The ability to ask questions and receive professional opinions was the least popular reason for consulting an aviation application,” the report said. “Instead, pilots who used aviation applications cared about the graphics, comprehensive features, and portability.”
Flight service briefers remain “an important primary source of information for pilots (particularly in Alaska),” it added.
Thanks to survey respondent feedback, the app Windy.com, appearing in previous surveys “as a write-in response,” was added to the 2021 survey as a response option, proving to be the fourth most popular selection in Alaska. Windy placed fifth in the continental United States on a list of choices led by aviation apps, the Aviation Weather Center, flight service specialists, and the Weather Channel.
Other digital weather products including the Graphical Forecasts for Aviation and Alaska Aviation Weather Guidance, along with offerings in development but already available for pilot evaluation such as the experimental Cloud Vertical Cross-Section show promise, said Jim McClay, AOPA director of airspace, air traffic, and security. He called on the FAA to increase its outreach to the pilot community for feedback on how to make the developmental products ready for prime time.
AOPA also recommended that the success of the FAA Weather Camera Program, a much relied-on prior-to-flight briefing tool in Alaska, makes the case for expanding the program in Alaska and in the lower 48 states. Research funding should be increased “to make it a 24-hour source of information, as opposed to a daylight-only system.”
The report noted two areas in which getting pilots’ buy-in remains a challenge for the FAA. One is to get more pilots reading the FAA’s advisory circular publications—such as the new AC 91-92 on how to conduct self-briefings—to increase their awareness and understanding of information resources.
Another outreach task that has faltered so far is getting pilots to file more pilot weather reports (pireps)—arguably the best resource for providing a more complete picture of real-time weather.
The report offered some insights into why poor performance regarding pirep filing frequency persists. Reasons given by pilots for not filing ranged from being too busy to lacking confidence in their ability to file and feeling that air traffic control was too busy to take them. Others felt that because they only flew in good weather, pireps weren’t needed. Report data demonstrated that only 47 percent of respondents “said they provided unsolicited PIREPs at least sometimes, and the remainder (53%) rarely or never did so.” Alaska pilots were more likely to give unsolicited pireps than pilots in the continental United States.
“The data underlined the need for further work by industry and the FAA to stress the value of these observations and encourage more frequent pirep filings,” said AOPA Alaska Regional Manager Tom George, who called on flight instructors to emphasize the importance of pireps to their students.
In some cases, getting more users to accept unfamiliar products might be as simple as a rebranding effort. The report called on the Aviation Weather Center to drop “Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) tool” as the name of its low-level VFR weather product “to illustrate that it is appropriate for use by a wider audience, particularly general aviation.”
AOPA has conducted the annual weather surveys since 2017. Data for the 2021 report was based on responses from 2,409 pilots in the continental United States, 148 pilots in Alaska, and seven in Hawaii.
“The survey is extremely helpful in providing insights into what weather information is important to GA pilots, and our advocacy efforts go from there,” McClay said.