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The Airline Industry Will Need to Grapple with Climate Change Very Soon

Increasing weight-restricted days, more turbulence, and wind drought are among the growing concerns

by Lark Gould

November 9, 2022

Illustration By Yo Hosoyamada

Climate change is a building hot topic in the airline industry. Companies are working to come up with jet fuels that are kinder to the environment, as well as zero-carbon-emission deadlines. However, with world air travel heading to surpass all-time highs, there are many more near-term concerns about changing weather patterns.

One of those concerns is heat. In September, many regions, especially in the Southwest, experienced prolonged heat waves. New forecasts posit that long expected increases in average global temperature beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius will be happening by 2026—not 2050. For the earth, the past seven years were the warmest on record, and there is a nearly 50-percent chance we will see “tipping points” in the climate system in the next few years.

Among the concerns are more frequent episodes of dangerous wind patterns and runway issues that will affect takeoffs, landings and weight allowances. A study published by the American Meteorological Society found that, by 2050, the number of special weight-restricted days between May and September will increase by 50 percent at four U.S. airports alone.

Higher temperatures make air less dense. This reduces the lift available to levitate planes’ wings. Heavier aircraft will need longer runways to manage this, especially during summer.

A heating planet also means more severe turbulence all around, such as was experienced on a Boeing 737-800 aircraft SpiceJet flight from Mumbai last May. On that flight, turbulence caused serious injury to 14 passengers (turbulence is still the leading cause of injuries to airline passengers and crew, according to the FAA).

As climate change stimulates wind-shear events along the jet stream, more turbulence can be expected, according to Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, who in July addressed the Sustainable Aviation Futures congress in Amsterdam: “We have a lot of evidence that the jet stream is now 15 percent more strongly sheared since satellites began measuring it in the 1970s. And this causes a lot of turbulence. Our calculations indicate there is going to be twice or three times as much severe turbulence in the next few decades because of climate change.”

A third and less noted consequence of climate change is a concept known as wind drought. That means that, on the ground, there is a budding phenomenon called “global stilling” that is expected to increase as cold Arctic air warms and results in slimmer differences in temperatures between hot and cold areas (it’s the temperature difference that drives large-scale winds around the globe).

The result means increasing weakness in the strength and speed of headwinds, which in turn will require shallower climbing angles and increased take-off and landing distances. To operate safely, airlines will need longer runways, lighter planes and payloads and new ways to protect those onboard from the projected increases in turbulence. Whether or not new forms of speedy, long-distance transportation can be suitably adapted in a quest for solutions, the airline industry is in for a bumpy ride in the near term.