Ask the Captain: Can you fly over hurricanes? If not, how do you fly around them?

Is it possible to fly over a hurricane, and if not, how do you plan flights where you have to go around one?

– C.J., Houston

Yes, you can fly over hurricanes. I have several times. However, you cannot fly over the thunderstorms that are created in some feeder bands. When operating near or over a hurricane, avoiding thunderstorms is paramount. 

Usually the dispatcher, or the pilots for smaller operators, monitor where the thunderstorms are and where they are forecast to be. Flights are routed to avoid those areas where the thunderstorms present a threat. 

It is possible to overfly a hurricane if the destination is on the other side of the storm. However, some storms can create turbulence at high altitude and that has to be factored in when choosing a route.

Unless there a reason to fly near a hurricane, they are avoided, but if it is necessary, flight can operate on a limited basis.  Planes will continue to fly into and out of airports until winds reaches a certain speed (it varies by airport and runway) and then the airport shuts down. 

The wind speed limits depends on the direction. If it is blowing down the runway, it is possible to land and take off with 40 knots (46 mph) or more but if it is blowing across the runway, then around 30 knots (35 mph) is the limit. 

 Statistically speaking, which commercial airliner is safest?

– Bob B., Southlake, Texas

Your question centers on the exposure (number of flights) vs. accidents. Aircraft like the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737NG (which debuted in 1997 and is not to be confused with its grounded successor, the 737 Max) have decades of service and millions of flight. There have been fatal accidents on each but the number is low.

Newer aircraft such as the 787 and A350 and A380 have had no accidents. The B777, A340 and  A330 have had very, very few.

As a general rule, each generation of airliners are safer, more comfortable and more capable then previous ones due to lessons learned.

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.

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