Study: Climate Change Will Continue to Ground More Flights

Jul 14, 2017

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Already this summer, American Airlines has canceled 50 flights out of Phoenix (PHX) as the airport was just too hot for some aircraft to takeoff. Last fall, Norwegian announced it was canceling its summer flights to Las Vegas (LAS) for the same reason. The desert summers were now just too hot for a fully-loaded Boeing 787 to take off some days, making profitable operations impossible for the narrow-margin low-cost carrier.

Turns out, these impacts may just be the beginning. Today, Columbia University published a study in the journal Climatic Change looking at the impact climate change may have on air travel and cargo. The study projects that in the coming decades, between 10 and 30% of “fully loaded planes may have to remove some fuel, cargo or passengers, or else wait for cooler hours to fly.”

These impacts are forecast to impose “non-trivial cost on airline and impact aviation operations around the world.” Limitations on number of passengers or cargo would lead to higher airfare costs and costs for any goods shipped via air cargo. Meanwhile, limiting the amount of fuel on board could eliminate some of the world’s long flights or require fuel stops along the way.

In order to continue operating fully-loaded flights, some airlines and air cargo companies might have to shift to nighttime operations. While this is an idea that may feel foreign to US travelers, this process is already implemented in many Middle Eastern airports — where daytime high temperatures regularly threaten to ground flights. To avoid the domino effect from potential delays or cancellations, airlines schedule many of their flights in the evenings, overnight and mornings.

The Columbia study forecasts “average temperatures are expected to go up as much as another 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) by 2100.” Some may wonder if these few degrees could even impact 10% of flights. The study points out that this temperature increase wouldn’t be proportional — instead, “heat waves will probably become more prevalent, with annual maximum daily temperatures at airports worldwide projected to go up 4 to 8 degrees C (7.2 to 14.4 F) by 2080.” And it’d be these heat waves that’d cause the significant problems for the aviation industry.

In fact, looking over the last few decades, average global temperatures have gone up “just” 1 degree Centigrade (1.8 Fahrenheit). This small increase has already begun impacting US air travel such as the AA cancellations in PHX and Norwegian pulling out of LAS over the summer.

It’s not just takeoffs that are affected by the changing climate. A recent study published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences forecasts that “air turbulence as a result of climate change could more than double by the end of this century.” While the exact impact of global temperature increases on aviation remains to be seen, researchers are continuing to forecast rough skies ahead.

Featured image courtesy of Savushkin via Getty Images.

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