Rising Temperatures are Changing the Aviation Sector

Rising Temperatures are Changing the Aviation Sector

As the world heats up, air travel will get more and more difficult. It’s already happening -- high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest last June and July, London in 2018 and 2019, and Phoenix in 2017, wreaked havoc on flight plans for days.

While these record high temperatures used to be anomalies, climate change has made these circumstances more common. "You go from truly outlier cases to what may be 5% and then 10% and maybe even 20% of flights being impacted in some way at some airports,” said Robert Mann, president of the aviation industry consulting firm R.W. Mann. & Co.

In the face of ever-rising temperatures, airports, airlines, and airplane manufacturers are looking for ways to adapt. "This is happening more, it's not an anomaly anymore," said Bijan Vasigh, a professor of airline finance and economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Why This Matters

Air travel is just one sector adjusting to the new normal of extreme heat. Summer 2021 broke heat records worldwide, which made droughts more aggressive, sparked fires, and killed thousands globally. In 2020, Baghdad set a new record high temperature at 125.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and a report suggests that by 2040, the city will see at least 40 days per year with similar heat extremes. A recent GIF by NASA visualized this extreme heat, showing that global warming has accelerated in the last few decades, putting many industries and lives at risk.

NASA: Climate Spiral, March 15, 2022.

BBC: Past seven years hottest on record, EU satellite data shows, January 10, 2022.

Adjusting To Extreme Heat

Under hot conditions, it takes more fuel -- which is heavy -- to lift the same amount of passengers and cargo. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that the most at-risk airports in the US could have four times as many weight restriction days by 2050. According to a study of 10 airports in Greece, where temperatures rose over the past 30 years, the maximum take-off weight of planes decreased by about 8,800 pounds.

In general, air travel needs to change to avoid contributing to climate change. Experts say commercial air travel accounts for about 3 to 4% of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meanwhile, the UN expects carbon dioxide emissions from planes to triple by 2050.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a climate action plan in November that offers a roadmap for the decarbonization of the US aviation sector. United Airlines, awarded Eco-Airline of the Year in 2021, purchased 100 electric jets last year with short-haul service to rollout in 2026.

WW0: Newsmaker of the Week | Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, September 23, 2021.

The Economist: Can flying go green?, February 10, 2022.

The Economist: See what three degrees of global warming looks like, October 30, 2021.