Climate change and the impact of extreme temperatures on aviation

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 5:30 PM
Ethan Coffel and Radley Horton, Columbia University of New York, Palisades, NY, United States
Weather is the most significant factor affecting aircraft operations, accounting for 70-80% of passenger delays and costing airlines hundreds of millions of dollars per year in lost revenue. Temperature and airport elevation significantly influence the maximum allowable takeoff weight of an aircraft by changing the surface air density and thus the lift produced at a given speed. For a given runway length, airport elevation, and aircraft type there is a temperature threshold above which the airplane cannot take off at its maximum weight and thus must be weight restricted. The number of summer days necessitating weight restriction has increased since 1980 along with the observed increase in surface temperature. Climate change is projected to increase mean temperatures at all airports and significantly increase the frequency and severity of extreme heat events at some. These changes will negatively affect aircraft performance, leading to increased weight restrictions especially at airports with short runways and little room to expand. For a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, we find that the number of weight restriction days between May and September will increase by 50-100% at four major airports in the United States by 2050-2070 under the RCP8.5 high emissions scenario. These performance reductions may have a significant economic effect on the airline industry, leading to lower profits and higher passenger fares. Increased weight restrictions have previously been identified as potential impacts of climate change, but this study is the first to quantify the effect of higher temperatures on commercial aviation.