Natural disasters present a major problem for airlines. Compelling footage released in April showed an Air New Zealand plane landing during a cyclone. With Hurricanes Harvey and Irma currently having devastating effects in the United States, how exactly must pilots and airlines deal with natural disasters?

Last week, flight records also identified a Delta Airlines aircraft directly approaching Hurricane Irma. It landed at Puerto Rico in time, possibly saving the lives of 170 people. It indicates the sheer danger that natural disasters prevent to the business of aviation. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology regularly updates Aviation Weather Services online which provides airlines and general aviation users with the relevant information to fly with safety in different weather conditions. Forecasts, warnings and advisories are of an invaluable nature.

The simplest way an airline deals with natural disasters is cancelling flights. It is without a doubt an unpopular choice, as it adds to the cost of travel delays. From 2008-2013, the largest cause of air traffic delay in the U.S. was indeed weather (69 per cent). In December 2010 to January 2011, an estimated 16,000 flights were cancelled in America due to severe weather.

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Regulations (CAR) requires the pilot in command to make provision to carry adequate fuel so that in the event of a forced diversion – such as due to unexpected weather conditions – they can land safely. To be more specific, an operator must, according to law, take “reasonable steps” to ensure the aircraft doesn’t start flying if they are not carrying sufficient fuel. If an operator does not do this, fines may apply. A court is to take into account the meteorological conditions in which the aircraft is to fly as well as the possibility of a “forced diversion to an alternative aerodrome”.

As such, pilots must engage in pre-flight study if they are to venture beyond an aerodrome.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regularly publishes weather reports and forecasts a pilot must consider, grounds on which an alternate aerodrome is suitable to land and a range of other matters. Detailed guidance for preparations can be found on CASA’s Visual Flight Rules Guide.

Interestingly, pilots are actually prohibited to fly in conditions where it may fly into icing conditions. They may, however, do this if they have the proper CASA-approved de-icing or anti-icing equipment.

There are vast implications for pilots and airlines flying in severe weather physically and legally. Pilots and airlines must take care in ensuring they carry out all the proper weather checks under the Regulations. If they are not, they may need to pay significant penalties.