Trouble at take-off: Rising temperatures may ground aircrafts

By Neelabja Adkuloo

Snow, rain and storms cause about one-third of all aircraft delays and cancellations. Now, climate change has added another variable to these delays-heat.

A study published in the journal ‘Climate Change’ on July 13, as cited by Reuters, found that heat waves will make it harder for 10 to 30 percent of the planes to take-off in the coming decades. Air is lighter in extreme heat and prevents the aeroplane’s wings from generating enough lift to take-off unless the plane exercises “weight restrictions”.

Turbulent times for the aviation industry

The air crafts will be forced to drop people, cargo or fuel when temperatures swelter or will have to choose to stay grounded, as 50 flights leaving Phoenix were forced to in 49°C weather on June 20.

Assuming global warming rises unimpeded, airports with hotter average temperatures, shorter runways (where it’s harder to achieve fast take-off speeds), and higher elevations (where thin air is more vulnerable to weather changes) will suffer more. New York’s and Dubai’s airports are likely to be the worst hit, due to short runways and scorching heat respectively. Ironically, air travel has become a large contributor to planet-warming emissions. Right now, the aviation industry is responsible for about 2 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, efforts to minimise emissions are moving slowly.

The costs of delays or cancellations will naturally disrupt several sectors of the economy. Cutting 12 to 13 passengers per plane on hot days will have a significant economic impact on the aviation industry’s already thin profit margins.

What this means for the flyers

Air travellers may feel the effects of climate change physically, as the jet stream winds grow stronger. These winds will delay transatlantic flights, resulting in longer travel times. Faster winds will also make for turbulent rides. In the coming decades, flyers can expect as much as three times the frequency of in-air jerkiness that is “strong enough to catapult unbuckled passengers and crew around the aircraft cabin”.

If planes have to burn more fuel to counter air turbulence, passengers may have to pay more to fly, resulting in expensive plane tickets.

Measures to be taken

Some effects could be mitigated with new aircraft designs, expanded runways or flights that are scheduled to take-off in the night or early mornings when it’s relatively cooler.

However, expanded runways in densely packed cities such as New York are not an option. Airlines could adapt by moving major airports to regions with cooler climates. Many regional jets based in local hubs cannot fly at temperatures above 49°C. New aeroplanes will take nearly a decade to develop, and it will take more than simple design tweaks for the aviation industry to overcome the challenges this extreme heat poses. Famed atmospheric scientist Paul Williams believes that the industry needs to start developing new turbulence and heat wave resistant engines.

With as many as 2.2 million people flying every day, this issue is something that directly concerns the public. The sooner climate can be incorporated into mid-range and long-range plans, the more effective adaptation efforts are going to be.

Featured Image Source: Pixabay