Climate change could increase weight restrictions and ground more planes

Climate change could increase weight restrictions and ground more planes

Researchers have developed a model to calculate how increased air temperatures due to climate change will affect aviation operations around the world.

Climate change could increase weight restrictions and ground more planes

Increased air temperatures due to climate change could present a significant new challenge for the aviation industry, new research finds. As air temperatures rise at constant pressure, the density of air declines and this makes it harder for an airplane to take off.

The research comes following news that in Phoenix in the US recently, over 40 flights had to be cancelled because it was too hot for the planes to fly.

According to climate change projections, the annual maximum temperatures at airports worldwide could increase by four to eight degrees Celsius by 2080. Air temperature has an important effect on aircraft take-off performance. For a given runway or aircraft there is a temperature threshold above which an aircraft cannot take off at its maximum weight, requiring a weight restriction -- removing passengers, cargo or fuel.

A model to predict weight restrictions

Led by Ethan Coffel of Columbia University, researchers have developed a model to project future weight-restrictions across a fleet of aircraft with different take-off weights operating at a variety of airports. They constructed performance models for five commercial aircraft (the Boeing 737-800, Airbus A320, Boeing 787-8, Boeing 777-300, and Airbus A380) at 19 major airports in different temperature zones and elevations worldwide. They included projections of daily temperatures from a climate model suite known as CMIP5 under two carbon emissions scenarios to calculate possible weight restrictions that might be required at these airports during a day.

"This work is an advancement of our research from 2015 which focused on four US airports, one common aircraft type, and considered only changes in the frequency of certain levels of weight restriction," explains Coffel.

Climate change must be factored in

The researchers found that from 2050 onwards, on average 5-25% of flights departing during the warmest hour of the day may require some weight restriction below their maximum take-off weights. These restrictions could total between 0.5 and 4% of total aircraft payload capacity in the worst cases.

"Both mid-sized and large aircraft are affected, and airports with short runways and high temperatures, or those at high elevations, will see the largest impacts," explains Coffel.

"Our results suggest that weight restriction may impose a non-trivial cost on airlines and impact aviation operations around the world," says Coffel. "The sooner climate change is incorporated into mid- and long-range plans, the more effective adaptation efforts can be."

Such adaptations could include changes in aircraft design, scheduling changes or building longer runways.

The study, The impacts of rising temperatures on aircraft take-off performance, is published in the journal, Climactic Change.

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