According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 2.2 million passengers fly every day. Irrespective of whether the flights are for business or pleasure, most people prefer to get where they are going in a timely manner. In some cases, business transactions or family emergencies may depend on it. In 2016, the percent share of total aviation weather delay minutes was 32.9 percent. While this is down from about 49.9 percent in the early 2000’s, it is significant. Most weather delays are related to poor visibility, severe weather, and icing conditions. Now there’s a new weather issue: heat.
A new study published today in the journal Climatic Change finds that increasing temperatures may cause more flight delays because some planes cannot take off. Other planes will have to make do with less cargo and fewer passengers, impacting prices and revenues. With so many people flying every day, this is something that connects directly to the public as well.
If you think this is type of stuff is out in “la-la land,” you are wrong. I recently wrote in Forbes on how many flights recently had to be canceled in the southwest U.S. because temperatures were too hot for certain types of plains to fly. A press release issued by the Earth Institute at Columbia University summarized the key findings of the first global analysis of this new challenge
During the hottest parts of the day, 10 to 30 percent of fully loaded planes may have to remove some fuel, cargo or passengers, or else wait for cooler hours to fly…..As air warms, it spreads out, and its density declines. In thinner air, wings generate less lift as a plane races along a runway. Thus, depending on aircraft model, runway length and other factors, at some point a packed plane may be unable to take off safely if the temperature gets too high. Weight must be dumped, or else the flight delayed or canceled.
NASA Glenn Research Center
Global temperatures continue to warm and several recent heat records have been shattered in the across the U.S. Temperatures in parts of the Middle East soared to 54 deg C (129.2 deg F) in the past week. Global temperature data reveals that January-May 2017 was about 0.92 degrees C above the 20th-century average. 2016 was the warmest year on record and that dethroned 2015. Several recent studies in the peer-review literature and by the National Academies have documented that heat waves are increasing in frequency and intensity. The study finds, according to the Columbia University press release
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…..It is these heat waves that may produce the most problems.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Other studies have examined the impact of climate change on in-flight turbulence or sea-level rise near coastal airports. However, this research group’s focus on take-off and potential delays is novel and has very clear economic implications. The latest study builds on previous research by the group. In a 2015 study, they suggested that there could be up to four times as many temperature-related takeoff problems for Boeing 737-800 aircraft at airports in Phoenix, Washington D.C., New York City, and Phoenix.
The new study examines 15 additional airports in the United States, parts of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. They also added different aircraft types. Radley Horton, a climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was a co-author of the study. He states
As the world gets more connected and aviation grows, there may be substantial potential for cascading effects, economic and otherwise.
Bureau of Transportation Statistics
The study suggests that if emissions continue on current trajectories payload weights and fuel capacities will have to be reduced by as much as 4 percent on the warmest days. Imagine what this means for some of the air cargo carriers from a business perspective. For airlines carrying people, a 4 percent reduction could mean 12 to 13 fewer passengers per plane – a big economic impact on already thin profit margins.
According to Horton in the press release
some effects could be mitigated with new engine or body designs, or expanded runways. But modifications would come at a cost, as aircraft are already highly engineered for efficiency; and expanded runways in densely packed cities such as New York are not an option.
The bottom line is that airlines and cargo carriers can’t have their heads in the sand and should begin to account for such climate change realities in their long-range planning. Dr. Paul Williams of the University of Reading was not involved in this study but has recently published research on climate change and turbulence. He told me
Studies like this show that air travel is likely to be yet another a victim of climate change, in addition to one of the causes. We need to refocus the whole debate around aviation and climate change, by acknowledging that their interaction is two-way and they affect each other.
From my perspective, this study is not about belief systems, hoaxes, Al Gore or ideology, it is about good business practice and consumer awareness.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President
More Info: www.forbes.com