Scientists and FAA warn increased temperatures could disrupt flights this summer

Anyone who’s ever been stuck on the runway during a hot day knows how agonizing the wait can be.

And unfortunately, there’s a chance more air travelers will be stranded on runways as climate change brings more hot weather. A higher number of warm days throughout the year could mean more grounded flights during the busy summer travel season, climate scientists and officials at the Federal Aviation Administration said.

“The increase in temperature is certainly a factor,” Tim Arel, chief operating officer of the FAA, told WTOP.

Arel said it’s something the administration used to worry about less. But things keep heating up, and more frequent heat can actually make it harder for planes to lift off the ground. He said this phenomenon is one they’re continuing to monitor, more so than they have in the past.

“Aircraft operators then have to make a decision about adding more fuel or less fuel — flying shorter routes with less fuel,” he explained. “It is a real factor during those warmer months and does limit some types of operations at those places.”

Higher temperatures don’t just ground flights, though. They can also affect the amount of runway airports need or the amount of luggage passengers can bring. In hotter climates, where planes need to shed weight to get enough lift, and passengers could be limited in what they can take with them when they’re traveling. Airports in problem areas like Phoenix and parts of Texas may even need to consider building additional runways.

It’s important to note though, these occurrences are still rare. Temperatures have to reach sustained high levels, even triple digits, and other factors like humidity must be considered too.

But the professor of climate dynamics at George Mason University, Dr. Jim Kinter, told WTOP he’s convinced it’s a done deal — and climate change is to blame.

“All the projections are that those effects are likely to get more severe over time,” he said.

Kinter said it all has to do with air density and how the exhaust and intake of jet engines interact with the hotter air. Heat makes the air less dense, and planes need more dense air to capture enough force to lift off.

In other words, hotter temperatures create unfavorable weather conditions that could leave air travelers stranded.

“There are now days where airplanes can’t take off because the atmosphere is too hot for planes to get enough lift,” Kinter said matter-of-factly.

Kinter said grounded planes might be just the beginning.

“Airports near the coast or water will feel the effects of rising sea levels too,” he told WTOP. “These are all issues we will have to confront sooner than some might think to adapt to the conditions.”

Matt Kaufax

If there's an off-the-beaten-path type of attraction, person, or phenomenon in the DC area that you think more people should know about, Matt is your guy. As the features reporter for WTOP, he's always on the hunt for stories that provide a unique local flavor—a slice of life if you will.

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