Too Hot To Fly? Climate Change May Take A Toll On Air Travel
Researchers are just beginning to explore how climate change affects aviation and planes’ ability to fly. Because there is so little data available and so many factors at play — aircraft design, airport size and location, the weight of passengers and cargo, to name just a few — it can be hard to attribute any one service disruption to global warming.
Depending on their locations, airports may experience the effects differently. High-altitude airports like Denver have thinner air by nature, so lift is even more affected by higher temperatures.
La Guardia Airport in New York could also be affected, even though it is at sea level. La Guardia has a short runway relative to other major commercial airports, and on particularly hot days that can be a problem: Planes might not have enough distance to achieve the speed and lift needed to get airborne.
“Typically in the hotter days of the summer, you may have to bump payload, which includes cargo and/or passengers,” said David Wilhelm, a senior dispatch manager at Southwest Airlines. Reducing weight allows a plane to take off with less lift.
La Guardia, because of its short runway, already forces many planes to reduce their weight, regardless of the weather. A Boeing 737, for example, has to cut its maximum payload by a thousand pounds for a successful departure. That restriction increases on hotter days, up to 15,000 pounds when the temperature hits 91.4 degrees.
Restrictions like these are determined by individual airports and airlines, and not by a standardized industry regulation. American Airlines consults National Weather Service data and plugs it into a formula to calculate air density to determine if conditions at a given airport are suitable for takeoffs and landings.
In 2015, Radley Horton, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, published a joint study with a Ph.D. student, Ethan Coffel, on the effect of extreme heat on aviation. The conclusion: “We can say with confidence that there will be more weight-restricted days, and larger weight restrictions,” he said.