Flying is a contributor to climate change, but how will climate change impact flying? A new report finds that under the emissions scenarios of RCP4.5 and RCP8.5,* both medium- and large-sized aircraft will be unable to lift as much weight at their current speeds. The reason is that the predicted higher temperatures will result in lower air density, yielding a less-effective plane lift. Indeed, The Economist reports that this has already happened, with dozens of planes being grounded in Arizona on a particularly hot day in 2017.

Several factors of course play into this equation, but the report notes that aircraft flying out of airports with higher elevations, as well as aircraft using shorter runways in high temperatures, will be the most affected. Anywhere from 10%-30% of all flights taking off during the daily high temperatures are predicted to have reduced lift abilities, resulting in the need to cut as much as 4% of their overall weight.

This difference in weight could mean that quite a few seats must go empty in order for planes to take off. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that airlines will not continue to earn the same amount of profit with flights that are less full. For travellers, this could result in more expensive flights, vis-à-vis hauling fewer passengers on the same trips, or higher luggage fees due to new luggage weight restrictions. Airlines may also cut back on ammenities such as the drinks they offer, in order to cut weight in other ways. Also likely are increased delays at airports due to planes being unable to depart on time, indirectly adding to the costs. Changes to airport infrastructure, should airports need to extend runway lengths to provide planes more time to generate the same lift capacity, could also hit travellers with higher airport fees.

Apart from the financial impacts, there are some safety concerns as well. The temptation for airlines to book a seat too many when there are seats sitting idle is imaginable, particularly if there is no guarantee of higher temperatures on the day of the flight. A quick look at the runways of the Madeira (recently renamed Cristiano Ronaldo) Airport in Portugal, Barra Airport in Scotland, Courchevel Airport in France, or Gibraltar Airport in Girbraltar, is all it takes to realise that there is little room for error on the current runways. Perhaps these airports offer more extreme examples, but if planes can’t get the lift they need before hitting the end of their runway, it could be disastrous.

Dealing with future air density restrictions no doubt calls for technological innovation. Yet climate services should be an integral part of the solution as well. Most people have never heard of the term “climate services,” including those who actually use them in their work. The EU’s Roadmap for Climate Services defines it as “the transformation of climate-related data—together with other relevant information—into customised products such as projections, forecasts, information, trends, economic analysis, assessments (including technology assessment), counselling on best practices, development and evaluation of solutions and any other service in relation to climate that may be of use for the society at large.”

The MARCO project, for which LGI is a contributing partner, shows us that although the climate services market is still in its infancy, there is an increasing trend of both public- and private- sector professionals across many economic sectors who are starting to use climate services. The aviation industry is among them. Should Europe’s airports effectively incorporate climate services into their work, requiring all airlines and aircraft flying into and out of the airports to do so as well, Europe’s aviation industry as a whole would become much more adept at handling the impacts of climate change. Foreseeable examples include:

  • Aircraft manufacturers being able to better predict and construct the features that planes (including electric planes) will need, based on future atmospheric conditions;
  • Airlines having a better idea of when to schedule flights and how many seats to book under the predicted conditions;
  • Air traffic controlers having a less-stressful job, with better-planned flight schedules and fewer disruptions;
  • Airport authorities being able to invest in future terminals and tarmacs in a wise, climate-proof manner;
  • Aviation schools being aware of the future conditions under which pilots should spend more time training.

There are many foreseeable benefits stemming from applying climate services to the aviation industry, and this does not exclude related financial benefits. However, one major hurdle is getting companies with short-term time frames to look at such long-term aspects. Guidance from the government, via regulations and policies promoting the use of climate services, would no doubt help to send a strong signal to the market. By way of example, in 2011 the City of Copenhagen implemented similar regulations for its built environment sector, incorporating climate services for flood risks into its new urban development projects. Today, the city now expects to gain a whopping EUR 700-900 million.

While the financial gain for the aviation sector has not yet been calculated, climate services offer strong economic incentives, both for travellers and the aviation industry alike. Moreover, climate services support fewer chances of human error under the predicted tougher atmospheric conditions—something that even the most powerful engine may need.

*RCP stands for Representative Concentration Pathway. Established by the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there are four RCPs: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6, and RCP8.5. The numbers refer to the increase in radiative forcing in the year 2100 from pre-industrial values.

Suzi Tart Maurice
Innovation Strategist
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The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of LGI or the totality of its staff.