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Bumpy ride ahead as climate change creates turbulence for airlines

Expect delays ... new rainfall, temperature and wind patterns will change how airports operate Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville

There has been much discussion about the contribution of aviation to global greenhouse gas emissions.

But climate change is also having a huge impact on the industry, as airports and airlines are hit with the rising costs of extreme weather.

Too hot, too cold, too wet

In December 2013, dozens of flights from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in Canada were delayed or cancelled because of an ice storm that hit the city.

Earlier that year, the airport experienced a record-breaking 126mm in rainfall in just a few hours – more than the normal amount for the entire month of July.

In June, more than 40 flights were cancelled in Phoenix, Arizona, because it was too hot for the planes to fly. A 2016 report from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency, warned that higher temperatures caused by climate change could "have severe consequences for aircraft take-off performance”, including how many passengers and how much fuel airplanes are able to carry.

Global warming will also affect how airports are built. Changes in temperature and rainfall could “increase the demand for cooling for buildings or increase the drainage requirements for runways,” said the report. It also warns that rising sea levels threaten airports at coastal locations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects a global sea-level rise of 52-98 cm by 2100 if emissions continue to grow.

Airports in the Arctic, a region that relies on aviation for the most basic supplies, are already affected.

Thawing permafrost is damaging runways, making takeoff and landing unsafe. Meanwhile, changes in weather patterns are increasing the likelihood of ice build-up.

According to the ICAO, changes in rainfall, temperature and wind patterns, more frequent storms, sea-level rise and storm surges, increased clear-air turbulence and changing wildlife migration patterns are all factors that the industry must consider as it looks to its future.

There is economic fall-out to contend with too, not least as a result of disgruntled customers who, unable to take their flights, decide to switch routes or airlines.

At Iqaluit Airport, Arctic Canada’s main aviation hub, the cost of using de-icing chemicals in colder years can amount to more than $US300,000.

How airports are responding

Image: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Some airports are already responding. The third runway at Hong Kong International Airport will include 13.4km of seawall to help protect it from flooding and storm surges.

Iqaluit Airport is also investing in its future, with a $US240 million renovation that includes elements designed to withstand heavy snow and wind.

San Diego’s Airport Authority is including a stormwater capture and re-use system as well as a master drainage plan for its major airport.

Meanwhile, watching the weather will become ever more important for air traffic controllers. In the UK, meteorologists will be stationed around the clock at one of the country’s main air traffic control centres.

Adapting to climate change will include expensive infrastructure upgrades and early-warning systems for potential flooding or heat waves, says the ICAO.

According to the Australia-based aviation analysis and research firm CAPA – Centre for Aviation, the industry is already spending $1 trillion to keep airports running over the next four decades, while $845 billion is being spent on upgrading existing facilities.

But this may not be enough to avert a looming infrastructure crisis.

Rising passenger numbers

Image: AC

Climate change isn’t the only reason airports are boosting spending. Worldwide passenger numbers increased 6.5% in 2016 to almost 7.7 billion, and airports are having to expand to cope with the demand.

While efforts have been made to make airports more sustainable, it’s clear that climate change is costing them dearly.

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