Rising Temperatures – A Nightmare for Aviation Industry

American-airlines

American-airlines

In the month of June 2017, when Phoenix was hit by a severe heatwave, with the mercury reaching 1200F; the American Airlines had to cancel 50 flights scheduled to depart from Sky Harbor International Airport. The news of the cancellations of the flights spread across the world. To know the reason behind this, one has to understand the physics of air travel and how extreme heat affects flying.

One of the reasons for cancellation was the planes were regionals jets which are tested for the maximum temperature of 1180F, whereas the large aircraft used for long haul flights are tested up to 1270F. Let’s understand the scientific reason behind it. For a plane to take off from the ground, the lift force has to be greater than the gravitational force due to the weight of the plane. Very warm climate causes less lift force, as the air density reduces due the heat. The engine of the plane has to be lighter on a hotter day than on a normal day. The only way to reduce the weight is less cargo or fuel or passengers.

The recent study by the researchers at Columbia University shows that 10 to 30 percent of flights scheduled for takeoff during the extreme hot sunny day will have to shade their weight by an average of about 700 pounds, ie. approximately equivalent to three passengers and their luggage. The study further claims that the airports in hotter regions and at high elevations having short runways will be affected maximum hence will impose strict weight restrictions by the year 2080, may be for around 50 days a year. For example the airports in Bangkok, Dubai, Miami, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York’s LaGuardia etc.

Aircraft at DXB

Aircraft at DXB, Credit: Flickr/Aeroprints.com

To overcome this effect, airports will need to invest in building longer runways, while airplane manufacturers will need to pump in money for improving the technology that undergirds engine performance and airframe efficiency. Air traffic controllers will need to revise schedules so heavier planes land and take off during cooler times of the day. In fact, this practice is already being followed by airports in cities like Dubai where extreme heat more common.

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