How a Warming Climate Will Trouble Air Travel


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.

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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.

“Becoming aware of one’s own vulnerabilities to a hazard can be a good motivator to think about how your sector contributes globally to that hazard,” he said.

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.

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