Passenger aircraft are not supposed to cross red areas on the weather radar. But what if the weather system is too large to circumnavigate and red areas inside the system are too large/prevalent to avoid ?

weather radar

What are pilots supposed to do if the required detour around red areas would be impractically long ?

  • divert to an alternate airport in front of the storm (on the near side) ?
  • go back to the departure airport ?

Most importantly:
When/where (at what stage of the flight: e.g. PNR minus x minutes, or at a specific distance to the weather front ahead, etc.) is the decision made whether to fly through the bad weather or to abandon the destination airport ? And which criteria is this decision based on ?

I assume this decision takes place between the conflicting priorities of assuring the passengers' safety and the (real-world) pressure exerted by (some) airlines on their pilots to reach their destination airport for financial reasons ?

Please distinguish in your answer flight over land and sea, assuming different considerations apply. For example, the pilot may need to take the decision before reaching the critical point or point of no return. What are the implications of ETOPS for this question ?

The premise ("a weather system too large to circumnavigate and red areas inside the system are too large/prevalent to avoid") may be a particularly common situation when crossing the ITCZ:




ITCZ a broad band of high total precipitable water along the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) (source)

Let me take AF447 as an example – not to say that red areas were unavoidable in this case, but just to illustrate how this flight through the ITCZ had to cross a weather system too large to circumnavigate entirely. Unless turning back, the pilots had to pick and choose "holes":




  • $\begingroup$ The top picture shows an altitude of 25,000', a radar tilt of -2 degrees, and a 160 mile range on the scope. The returns seen with those parameters are most likely to be ground returns, which is about what the display looks like. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @RalphJ thank you for pointing this out. I replaced the image. $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 17:06

1 Answer 1


There is no definitive, objective, commonly agreed upon set of criteria that I am aware of that provides an answer to your question.

Certainly airline dispatch departments strive to send aircraft along routes that will minimize exposure to extreme conditions if that's an option, and there may even be changes of schedules involved, but in the end, it's the aircraft captain who has to make the decision in the cockpit, in flight.

As such, and as illustrated by the answers to your previous question, individual captains will employ different criteria. In my experience in the ITCZ and given my outlook, you did your best to pick your way through avoiding the "red" if reasonably possible, and if not possible, you minimized your time in the red.

Doing a U-turn was not an option that we typically considered. This was the attitude and practice of all of my peer group save one. As I remember, he turned back once, and he subsequently left the company. By his own admission, he wasn't cut out for the type of flying we were doing.

Having to cross any of the red during en route flying was not something you had to often do. You could almost always avoid that.

And remember, what the red means is heavy precipitation, which, while potentially accompanied by severe turbulence, does not always mean that will be the case. Thunderstorms with heavy precip would sit over Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong along the IGS approach to the old Kai Tak airport, and we would shoot the approach through the red. There would be turbulence, but nothing abnormal.

Conversely, the absence of red does not ensure there will be no severe turbulence. The worst ride I ever had was going through a "clear" area the radar showed between two cells.

Concerning making a U-turn, and especially flying in the ITCZ westbound during the day, if you did a U-turn you might well find that your return route of flight has closed in and might well be worse than the forward route to your destination. If the heat of the day is building in front of you westbound, the sun's insolation has been building more behind you than in front of you.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Good answer from you, as always. re: "he left the company" – left or was gone ? $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 18:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @summerrain He resigned and went to work for a start-up carrier as I remember. He reputedly had the distinction of being that captain whose list of f.o.s that he wouldn't fly with was the longest and who was on the greatest number of f.o. blacklists. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 19:03
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ thank you. From your experience, do you think (some) airlines fire pilots (possibly under false pretenses) for keeping flights safe (and thus costly for the airlines) and being unwilling to take unnecessary risks by following the "better safe than sorry" principle, including diverting to alternate airports when other pilots are more willing to take risks or succumb to the pressure of getting the plane to its destination for fear of losing the job ? $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 19:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @summerrain Personally I never observed that in any of the four U.S. airlines I flew for. I suspect it does happen or at least did in third world countries. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Commented Dec 30, 2018 at 19:24

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