How to

19 July 2017

Aircraft Set to be Affected by the Warming Climate

As fun as jetting off around the world on holiday is, I think we could all do without the stress of travelling there. Something always seems to go wrong, whether it’s that your plane is delayed (or worse, cancelled), the metal detector insists you’re harbouring prohibited items, or you just end up sat next to the worst passengers possible on a ten hour flight. We’d all just teleport to our ideal destination if we could, but unfortunately that idea still remains confined to the realm of science fiction novels and films.

It’s pretty unfortunate that that’s still the case given that the airport situation is only going to get worse.

We hear all the time about how climate change is going to affect the environment and the weather, but it’s also set to devastate our everyday lives in just about any way that it can. As the global temperatures rise and reach severe levels, the aviation industry will start to suffer as an increasing number of planes will be forced to stay on the ground.

This kind of situation was already realised last month during the horrendous June heatwave that had dire impacts on Europe as well as on North America. Temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona were just short of 50°C, stopping dozens of American Airlines’ smaller jets from being able to take off.

There are a number of reasons why the hot weather causes such problems for planes, with the main one relating to the difficulty that intense heat causes during take-off. As the air grows warmer, it also becomes thinner, meaning that adjustments have to be made if the temperature outside becomes too hot.

Ethan Coffel, the lead author of a new study that looked into the effects of rising temperatures on aircraft take-off performance, explained that:

“As air temperatures rise at constant pressure, air density declines, resulting in less lift generation by an aircraft wing at a given airspeed and potentially imposing a weight restriction on departing aircraft.”

By constructing performance models for various commercial aircraft and making temperature predictions based on emissions scenarios, Coffel and his team were able to calculate that 10-30% of annual flights departing at the hottest time of the day could end up being grounded.

There are a few ways in which this problem can potentially be alleviated, such as longer runways allowing for increased take-off speed, but the biggest solution is the most inconvenient. Reducing the amount of weight onboard would give the plane a better chance of achieving take-off, however this would mean offloading fuel, cargo and possibly even passengers. Good luck finding someone willing to give up their seat after waiting hours in the airport.

The study’s authors estimated that the equivalent of roughly 12 to 13 passengers would have to be removed from a 160-seat aircraft on blisteringly hot days. That doesn’t sound great, does it? Still, this will only be the case if emissions continue to increase at the rate they are now, meaning it’s possible to prevent (or at least lessen the impact of) this happening.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.