Climate Change and Commercial Airlines: Forecasting Greater Costs

Climate change is altering the future of air travel. In the near future, commercial airlines will need to raise the price of flights to offset increasing costs brought on by a warming global climate. Essentially, climate change is altering the commercial airline industry in two ways: by creating increasingly difficult and hazardous conditions for aircraft, and through the implementation of regulations intended to combat this climate change.  

Environmental Effects:

The warming climate has a multitude of effects on aircraft. Warmer air increases the difficulty of takeoff, resulting in delayed or canceled flights in some cases. Additionally, more intense jet streams caused by climate change can cause aircraft to burn more fuel or experience severe turbulence.

Generally speaking, hotter air is thinner, making it difficult for aircraft to take off, particularly smaller aircraft. Research by Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, demonstrates that aircraft do not travel through a vacuum, but rather move through an atmosphere that is being modified by climate change. With hotter, thinner air, aircraft have difficulty generating lift, meaning that some larger aircraft will require longer runways to get airborne. This can be a particularly challenging adjustment for airports in warmer climates, airports at higher altitudes with already thinner air, or any airport that is unable to extend its runways due to limited space. Thus, extreme heat can result in canceled or delayed flights, lost revenue for airlines, and irritated travelers. Furthermore, canceled and delayed flights are becoming more frequent and less predictable, adding new challenges to an industry with an already limited profit margin.

To adjust for warmer, thinner air and reduce weight, airlines may be forced to increase restrictions on passengers and cargo. Fewer passengers and increased luggage weight fees both mean higher costs for passengers. Aircraft flying out of climate-restricted airports are sometimes required to wait for cooler temperatures and more dense air before commencing takeoff. These delays have ripple effects on scheduled flight times throughout the airport. Additionally, working conditions on an airport tarmac can be unbearable for some workers, which could create difficulties filling these positions in the future.

Jet streams also play a large role in altering air travel. On long-distance flights, aircraft use high-altitude jet streams to maximize efficiency. These jet streams are becoming stronger and less stable due to climate change, creating more extreme flying conditions. These intense jet streams can result in severe turbulence, also known as “clean air turbulence,” due to the absence of visual warnings. This turbulence can cause injuries for travelers and airline personnel. Studies show that climate change increases wind speeds, forcing aircraft to burn more fuel when traveling against the stream, thus releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to the problem of climate change. Although some would argue that aircraft flying the same direction as the jet stream would burn less fuel, studies show that more intense jet streams result in higher fuel consumption overall and can even cause unscheduled refueling stops.

Regulations:

Climate change also alters the commercial airline industry via the implementation of regulations intending to limit its effects. Research shows that aviation is a major producer of carbon dioxide (CO2), responsible for about 2% of global emissions each year. While this may seem insignificant, scientific studies also indicate that large commercial aircraft account for 11% of all emissions from the global transportation sector, and that CO2 emissions from commercial flights increased by 32% from 2013 to 2018. To put this in perspective, one flight from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for an entire year. Limiting CO2 emissions will be crucial as air traffic is expected to triple by 2050.

On July 25, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a determination under the Clean Air Act that greenhouse gas emissions from certain types of aircraft engines contribute to the pollution that causes climate change and endangers Americans’ health and the environment. Following the EPA’s report, the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) created a new plan to reduce CO2 emissions from aircraft. ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) aims to stabilize CO2 emissions at 2020 levels by requiring airlines to offset the growth of their emissions after 2020. Through CORSIA, flights traveling internationally will be required to engage in carbon offsetting, which is when a company or individual compensates for their emissions by financing a reduction in emissions elsewhere. Essentially, airlines would pay a fee for carbon emissions exceeding 2020 levels, and this funding would be used to support research on climate change. As of January 1, 2019, this international agreement requires all carriers to report their CO2 emissions on an annual basis. Offsetting through CORSIA begins in 2021 and is expected to provide roughly $40 billion for climate projects between 2021 and 2035.

ICAO standards also call for a 4% reduction in fuel consumption by new commercial aircraft built after 2028. This means that airlines will need to invest in research and development to ensure that new aircraft will be more fuel-efficient. Yet some argue these regulations do not go far enough, as both the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 reportedly already meet ICAO standards.

Conclusive Thoughts:

Those hoping that international air travel would become more affordable over time will likely be disappointed. Efforts from the EPA and ICAO will hopefully benefit the environment and allow for cleaner air by reducing carbon emissions, however, commercial airline companies will need to increase their prices to account for greater expenses. Such expenses include the cost of additional fuel needed to travel through more intense jet streams, investments in research and development for alternative fuels or more fuel-efficient engines, engaging in carbon offsetting, and accounting for lost revenue due to canceled or delayed flights. Therefore, accounting for these expenses will cost airlines more and consequentially passengers as well.

About the Author

David Hutchins

David Hutchins is a Risk Analyst at Global Risk Intelligence. He earned his MSc in Defence, Development, and Diplomacy from the Durham Global Security Institute at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He maintains 6 years of military experience having served in the United States Marine Corps Forces Reserve. David is currently based in the United States.

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