The aviation industry is prioritising fuel efficiency through technology, operations and infrastructure to reduce its impact on climate change. However, a changing climate has also impacted flights and on-ground operations at airports in recent years and will continue to do so.
Aviation is a very resilient industry, used to dealing with many operational challenges, from extreme weather events to closure of airspace due to volcanic ash. Much future climate impact will be dealt with as part of normal daily network planning and operations, but some may lead to more systematic changes.
Forecasting exactly what kind of changes could take place is difficult, but below are some possible future operational challenges.
The most immediate impacts relate to weather. There are a range of different meteorological developments that could lead to alterations in flight operations. For example, increased storminess could result in more diversions or cancellations. Increased snowfall could impact operations, and snow or frost in places that have not traditionally experienced them would require those airports to equip themselves to cope.
Alternatively, a trend towards hotter weather can also cause issues. Hot air is less dense than cool air and higher temperatures can impact the performance of aircraft. This would require either longer runways to allow the aircraft to take-off or might even prevent some aircraft from operating if the temperature is too high. These impacts may be different around the world, as the altitude of the airport also plays a role, and some aircraft engines are able to operate in a wider range of conditions. This has always been an issue; however, we may see an increase in these types of disruptions if temperatures rise due to climate change.
These problems can normally be fixed, either by ensuring airports have the correct snow and ice clearing equipment, or by lengthening runways. Airlines could also invest in different aircraft if hotter weather becomes a systemic issue.
Some studies suggest that climate change may increase the atmospheric conditions that lead to turbulence. While these forecasts are not perfect, the industry is investing in new satellite-based navigation systems which should help flight crews avoid areas that are particularly at risk.
To put the issue into context, normal turbulence can cause discomfort for passengers, but is not a danger to aircraft, which are built and tested to withstand extreme weather conditions. Turbulence is a normal and routine part of flight, in fact, flights today are less turbulent than flights in the 1950s and 60s, as aircraft can now fly high above the weather, and technology has also improved.
On rare occasions however, severe turbulence can cause injuries – one of the reasons we suggest passengers keep their seatbelts fastened throughout the flight. In a recent sample year around 577 flights encountered turbulence, resulting in at least one injury to passengers or crew. This was 0.0045% of the flights taking part in the reporting, so while it is something flight crews try to avoid, it is not a major problem.
One of the most widely-predicted impacts of climate change is rising sea levels, which may impact airports and other infrastructure. In many cases, modifications can be made to deal with changing conditions, but this must be well planned once the effects of climate change are fully understood in each location.
Small islands, which rely on air travel for rapid connections to the outside world, may need to pay particular attention to this. Some 26 of the world’s 39 small island states have their main international airport located directly on seafront land.
Increased rainfall, flooding and storm surges can also cause issues for ground infrastructure, such as airports and air traffic control facilities. The resilience of these vital services is an important part of planning for governments and operators. Airports play an important role in the event of natural disasters and resilience assessments need to be prioritised.
The impact changing weather patterns might have on traveller behaviour and destination choice are not yet understood. Increasing temperatures may make some destinations less attractive during summer months if they get too hot, and others may increase in popularity. Resorts that are close to sea level could be impacted, or winter sport destinations may see shifts in their peak seasons.