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Delays ahead: Heat waves to disrupt airplanes' ability to take off

Heat waves ripple across the tarmac at Sky Harbor International Airport as downtown Phoenix stands in the background as an airplane lands June 20, 2017 in Phoenix.
Matt York | AP
Heat waves ripple across the tarmac at Sky Harbor International Airport as downtown Phoenix stands in the background as an airplane lands June 20, 2017 in Phoenix.

As if air travel wasn't already stressful enough.

Just last month, American Airlines was forced to cancel dozens of flights from Phoenix when temperatures of nearly 120 degrees made it too hot for smaller jets to take off.

Now, a study finds such heat-related flight disruptions will become more common in the next few decades as temperatures rise because of global warming. Blistering heat waves like the one that scorched the Southwest in June will make it harder for aircraft around the world to take off, according to the report published Thursday.

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Extreme heat affects a plane's ability to take off. Hot air is less dense than cold air, and the hotter the temperature, the more speed a plane needs to lift off. A runway might not be long enough to allow a plane to achieve the necessary extra speed for a safe takeoff. That means weight must be dumped, or the flight is delayed or canceled.

By the end of this century, heat waves are forecast to become more commonplace, with high temperatures at airports around the globe predicted to soar anywhere from 7.2 to 14.4 degrees above current levels by 2080, according to the study. These intense heat waves would cause the most problems.

"This points to the unexplored risks of changing climate on aviation," said study co-author Radley Horton, a climatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The issue adds to a growing list of aviation-related problems because of global warming, including increased turbulence, stronger headwinds and swamped airport runways due to rising sea levels, he said.

Tom Nolan, executive director of the Palm Springs International Airport, said the airport operates routinely in high heat. Temperatures in Palm Springs have reached 122 degrees four times this summer, and only a handful of flights have been delayed because of heat.

Nolan said he expects aviation technology to advance quickly in the coming decades, outpacing rises in ground temperatures.

"It's quite obvious, at least from my perspective, that the changes in engine technology – meaning more efficiency, more horsepower, less fuel consumption; the design of the fuselage and the wings, creating more efficiency with less energy; the use of composites in aircraft making them lighter… That in itself has advanced so quickly that even two decades from now you'll see dramatic advancements in how aircraft works," Nolan said. "Technology has got the upper hand and will stay well ahead of that and counter-balance" the effects of global warming.

On average, 10%–30% of flights departing at the hottest time of day would require some form of weight restriction toward the end of the century, the study determined. It also found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, aircraft fuel capacities and payload weights will need to be reduced on the hottest days for some planes.

"Adaptation may be required in aircraft design, airline schedules and/or runway
lengths," the authors wrote.

However, the authors noted that technological change, including improvements in engine performance and air frame efficiency could alleviate the effects of rising temperatures to a degree.

The study, the first such worldwide analysis, appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change.

Contributing: Rosalie Murphy, The Desert Sun