Whilst the aviation industry is prioritising fuel efficiency to try and reduce our climate change impact, there are also a number of ways in which a changing climate could impact air transport operations. It will always be difficult to forecast exactly what kind of changes could take place, but we have identified below some possible future operational challenges that could present themselves.
It should be remembered that aviation is a very resilient industry, used to dealing with operational challenges from weather events, or even closure of airspace due to volcanic ash. Many of these climate impacts will be dealt with as part of normal daily network planning, but some may lead to more systematic changes.
The most immediate impacts relate to meteorological conditions. There are a range of different weather-related developments that could lead to alterations in flight operations. For example, increased storminess could result in more diversions or flight 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 with the changes.
On the other side, a trend towards hotter weather can also cause issues. Hotter 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 a consideration for air travel, but if climate change increases hot weather conditions in some places, we may also see an increase in these types of disruptions.
There are normally ‘fixes’ to such problems – either ensuring airports have the correct snow and ice clearing equipment, or lengthening runways to deal with higher temperatures. Airlines could invest in different aircraft if hotter weather becomes a systemic issue.
Some studies also suggest that climate change may increase the atmospheric conditions that lead to turbulence. Whilst these forecasts are imperfect and the industry is also investing in new satellite-based navigation systems which should also allow flight crews to more accurately avoid areas that could cause significant turbulence, the concern should also be placed in context.
Normal turbulence can cause discomfort for passengers, but is not a danger to aircraft which are built and tested to withstand weather conditions they will probably never have to encounter. Turbulence is a normal and routine part of flight. In fact, flights today are less turbulent than flights in the 1950s and 60s, as we can fly higher above the weather and aircraft technology has improved.
On rare occasions, however, severe turbulence can cause injuries to passengers and crew – one of the reasons we suggest passengers keep their seatbelts fastened throughout the flight. In a recent sample 12-month period, around 577 flights encountered turbulence which resulted in at least one injury to passengers or crew. This was 0.0045% of flights taking part in the reporting, so whilst it is something flight crews try to avoid as much as possible, it is not a major problem for air travel.
One of the most widely-predicted impacts of climate change is rising sea levels, which may impact airport and other ground infrastructure. In many cases, these can be adapted to deal with changing conditions, but this must be well-planned once the effects of climate change are better 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.
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 the operators. Airports play an important role in the event of natural disasters and should be a priority for resilience assessments by governments.
Less understood are the possible alterations in destination choices by travellers as a result of changing weather patterns. Increasing temperatures may make some destinations less attractive during summer months if they start getting 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. These dynamics will play out over time, but it could also be a consequence of climate change.