May 10, 2013 at 5:57 PM ET
Everybody talks about the weather, but Geoff Murray is trying to do something about it – or at least what it does to frequent fliers.
Just out of beta, his brainchild, KnowDelay.com, promises to alert travelers of weather-related flight delays up to three days before takeoff.
“Weather delays are the most stubborn and intractable delays because oftentimes it can take travelers a day or more to get out,” said Murray. “But if you can say three days in advance, don’t connect over airport XYZ, change your flight and connect over airport ABC, you may be able to avoid the problem.”
The seed for the project was planted a decade ago when Murray worked as a commercial pilot flying day-trips out of Chicago O’Hare. On multiple occasions, he found himself stuck at his destination overnight due to bad weather back home.
“I was a senior pilot and I didn’t want to fly on days when there were going to be delays,” he told NBC News. “I came up with a very rudimentary system of looking at the newspaper three days ahead of time and saying, ‘Should I trade out of my trip on Sunday for one on Monday because Sunday looks like there’s going to be rain showers, thunderstorms, whatever.”
Fast-forward to today and that rudimentary system has evolved to factor in major advances in meteorology, years of on-time performance data and a better understanding of how individual airports handle bad weather.
According to Murray, bad weather accounts for almost half of the 20 percent of flights that experience delays in the U.S., with truly bad weather causing delays of an hour or more about 6 percent of the time.
“Most airports operate just fine most of the time,” he said.
When those other times threaten, KnowDelay users can view a map with colored dots — red, yellow and green — and a slider that lets them see forecasted delays over the next 72 hours. Red means there’s 60-percent chance of a 60-minute weather delay; yellow equals a 40-percent chance of a 30-minute delay, and green means a 6-percent chance of delay.
During two years of beta testing, says Murray, the site has accurately predicted 90 percent of weather-related delays. It now covers 37 U.S. airports, including major hubs and other destinations that are typically affected by bad weather.
The site is clearly best suited for business travelers, elite mileage-plan members and others who can afford to change flights on short notice or do so without a fee. To facilitate such changes, the site lets users track specific itineraries over time and suggests alternative routes when red circles start to blossom.
Leisure travelers, on the other hand, may see red for another reason: Changing flights on short notice is almost always a pricey proposition, especially as major airlines, including United, Delta and American have recently increased their change fees for domestic flights to $200, on top of any fare changes.
Even so, advance information is always a good thing when things might go bad and KnowDelay is clearly part of a larger trend in which the travel industry is taking advantage of technology to anticipate travelers’ needs.
Airlines, for example, have developed increasingly sophisticated systems that automatically reaccommodate travelers when flights get canceled and online travel agencies are making suggestions based on people’s location, booking history and even the type of device they use.
“Predictive technology, in the sense of let me deliver something to you that I’ve figured out that you want or need at that moment, is where the whole industry is going,” said Norm Rose, president of Travel Technology Consulting Inc.
According to Rose, it’s all part of Big Data and the move toward “smart services.”
“You’ll be on your mobile device and you’ll get a message that says, ‘Hey, we know you’re in this meeting; we know that the traffic to the airport is bad, and we know that you’re flight is on time,” he told NBC News. “You’re not going to make it so here are three alternatives to rebook your flight.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.