Thursday, July 20, 2017

How a Warming Climate Will Trouble Air Travel - The New York Times

An airplane landing at Sky Harbor International Airport in June, a day after temperatures in Phoenix reached 118 degrees. (Credit: Matt York/Associated Press) Click to Enlarge.
Rising temperatures and more frequent heat waves could force up to 30 percent of airplanes to delay takeoffs in the coming decades, causing cancellations, missed connections and other hassles for passengers, and dealing a financial blow to the industry, a new study finds.

As air warms, its density decreases. The wings of a plane moving down the runway on a hot day generate less lift. If it’s hot enough, the plane won’t be able to take off at all, according to the study, published in the journal Climatic Change.

The plane can either delay departure or lighten its load by removing fuel, cargo or passengers. The consequences could affect passengers, airlines and airports worldwide, said Radley Horton, co-author and climatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“Small shifts in temperature averages can lead to big changes,” he said. “There’s a lot of sensitivities to just a couple degrees of extra warming.”

Average global temperatures have gone up nearly 2 degrees since 1980, and they are expected to continue increasing as much as another 5 degrees by 2100.

Heat waves will likely become more frequent, with annual daily highs at airports worldwide projected to go up 7 to 14 degrees by 2080, according to the study.

Those heat waves are already having an effect. In June, American Airlines canceled more than 40 flights out of Phoenix, Ariz., when daytime highs of nearly 120 degrees made it unsafe for smaller regional planes to take off.

The researchers aimed to predict the likelihood of such events at 19 airports around the world, focusing on five types of planes.

They estimate that if global warming continues at its current rate, fuel capacities and weight on the aircraft will have to be reduced by as much as 4 percent on the hottest days. For a plane with 160 seats, that would typically mean cutting a dozen passengers.

More research is needed to understand how much money airlines would lose as a result of these passenger cuts and delays, but it is not trivial, the study said.

Technological advances to make planes lighter or engines more efficient could offset some of the effects, but it’s unlikely they could eliminate the problem altogether, Dr. Horton said.

He hopes the findings encourage the aviation industry to actively address issues of climate change.
Air travel emissions account for about 5 percent of warming right now, he said, but are expected to grow as the industry continues to add more flights and passengers.

Read more at How a Warming Climate Will Trouble Air Travel

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