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How rising temperature affects flight operations?

As the summer travel season approaches, climate scientists and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are issuing advisories

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
How rising temperature affects flight operations?

Rising temperatures caused by climate change have far-reaching effects on various sectors, including aviation. As temperatures continue to rise, flight operations face numerous challenges that can disrupt schedules, increase costs and impact passenger experiences.

As the summer travel season approaches, climate scientists and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) largest transportation agency of the U.S. government are issuing advisories about the potential impact of extreme heat on air travel.

Rising temperatures can lead to delays and cancellations as aircraft have difficulty generating lift and require more fuel for takeoff. While these challenges have been sporadic so far, experts suggest they may become more common and severe in the future.

Difficulty in generating lift

The expansion and thinning of hot air make it difficult for aircraft to generate the lift needed for takeoff. As the atoms and molecules in the air move faster, their increased spread and elevation reduce the density of the air. Consequently, planes require more power to take off, especially on extremely hot days.

The Federal Aviation Administration has noted cases where departures were not possible due to excessively hot atmospheres.

Climate experts and the administration are closely monitoring this phenomenon, which is occurring more frequently as temperatures rise alarmingly. If left unaddressed, this issue can lead to lengthy delays and disruptions for air travellers.

Elevated temperatures require additional engine power to generate sufficient lift, resulting in higher fuel consumption. Airlines must allocate more fuel than usual to carry the same payload during routine flights. Fluctuating fuel prices have a significant impact on airline expenses.

Tim Arel, director of operations for the FAA, acknowledges that operators face difficult decisions regarding fuel supply. They may choose to carry more fuel, which may result in limitations on passenger baggage or cargo acceptance. However, such measures can negatively affect airlines' revenues.

To mitigate this problem, climate scientists and the FAA suggest that airports, particularly those in warmer regions like Phoenix and parts of Texas, may require new and longer runways to accommodate aircraft in these challenging conditions.

Aircraft takeoff and performance

Higher temperatures significantly affect aircraft performance during takeoff. As the air temperature increases, the air density decreases, making it more difficult for aircraft to generate lift. This requires longer tracks and increased engine power, resulting in increased fuel consumption and reduced payload capacity.

In extreme cases, airports may need to implement weight restrictions or even ground flights due to the inability of aircraft to reach safe takeoff speeds. Also, hotter air can reduce engine efficiency, which could cause engine power reductions or performance limitations.

The increase in temperatures also affects the airport infrastructure, in particular the length of the runways. Higher temperatures can cause asphalt tracks to soften, reducing load capacity and increasing stopping distances. This can result in the need for runway repairs and potentially lead to flight delays or closures.

In regions with frequent heat waves, airports may need to consider lengthening runways to accommodate aircraft in these challenging conditions. Infrastructure upgrades can be costly and time-consuming, requiring careful planning and investment to ensure safe and efficient operations.

Rare occurrences but increasing likelihood

Although these challenges are currently rare, experts predict they will become more frequent as temperatures rise. Sustained high temperatures, combined with other factors such as humidity, can contribute to more severe outages.

Dr. Jim Kinter, Professor of Climate Dynamics, emphasizes that while triple-digit temperatures are required, projections indicate that these extreme conditions will become more common over time.

Grounding aircraft on runways and taxiways due to takeoff difficulties may become more frequent, especially as parts of the US are already experiencing record-breaking heat waves. It is crucial to recognize the potential for these problems to escalate and take proactive steps to address them.

The upcoming summer months present challenges for air travel due to rising temperatures. Difficulties in generating lift and increased fuel consumption are among the concerns facing airlines and passengers.

While rare today, these outages may become more common and severe in the future. To mitigate the impact, airports in warmer regions may need to invest in longer runways.

As climate change continues, it is crucial that the aviation industry prepare for the potential consequences of extreme heat. By implementing proactive strategies and working collaboratively with climate scientists and regulatory bodies, the industry can work to ensure safer and more reliable air travel experiences.

Flight planning and route efficiency

Higher temperatures affect flight planning and route efficiency due to higher fuel consumption. Since airplanes require more power to generate lift in hot air, they burn more fuel during takeoff and climb. This can lead to reduced range capability and the need for additional fuel stops on long-haul flights.

Flight planners must take these factors into account, which could result in longer flight times and altered routes to optimize fuel efficiency. Severe heat waves can create turbulence and atmospheric instability, requiring pilots to adjust flight paths and altitudes for passenger safety.

Rising temperatures can have a significant impact on the comfort and health of passengers during flights. Higher cabin temperatures can make the interior environment uncomfortable, especially on older aircraft without advanced climate control systems.

High temperatures can also exacerbate dehydration and fatigue among passengers, increasing the risk of health problems during long-haul flights. Airlines must ensure adequate cabin cooling systems, offer adequate hydration and educate passengers on how to manage heat-related discomfort and stay hydrated during travel.

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