Winter of discontent: the impact of climate change on the aviation industry

Scientists and meteorologists have warned that climate change could be behind more extreme winter weather conditions. For airports and airlines, this could not only mean delays and disruptions to flights, but much higher costs in the near future, as Ross Davies reports.


Mention the aviation industry and climate change in the same breath and it invariably concerns the former’s impact on the latter.

In the shadow of the Paris climate agreement, inked in November last year, airlines are under more pressure than ever to curtail their carbon footprint.

There are indications they are listening, too. Representing probably the sector’s boldest gesture yet to prove its commitment to a greener future, at the end of last year national representatives at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) came together to sign a pledge to offset all emissions after 2020.

Rather than a face-saving move, as some long-time environmental critics may well choose to see it, there appears to be serious cause for airlines and airports to pay closer attention to climate change: it has the potential to create unprecedented operational costs for them.

Scientists continue to discover links between climate change and increasing erratic weather patterns, such as torrential rain, droughts and cyclones.

According to recent research carried out by scientists at the University of Sheffield, climate change might also be behind colder, more extreme winters, such as those felt in New York in 2014- 2015, in which there were record levels of snowfall.

The study, ‘Nonlinear response of mid-latitude weather to the changing Arctic’, suggests warming in the Arctic is intensifying the effects of the jet stream, which can cause extreme cold snaps.

A complex chain of events: how even a low hanging cloud can cause disruption

It’s a trend that’s being watched closely by the UK Met Office.

Disruptive weather during the winter could be described as anything which causes a departure from an airline or airport’s normal schedule,” says aviation business manager Emma Connett.

“At airports, this includes aspects of weather which impact on the safe and timely arrival and departure of aircraft, including low visibility, low cloud, snow and ice, thunderstorms and strong winds.”

Such conditions, says Connett, can unleash a “complex chain of events” for airports to deal with. For instance, in the case of low visibility of fog clouding the runway, an aircraft might be forced to circle above and wait to land – burning extra fuel in the process.

"Very quickly, an apparently small change in the weather can have a large impact on an airline and airport’s operation."

In a worst-case scenario – the fog refuses to shift – the aircraft may be required to divert its route to another airport, so as to wait and refuel.

“If this happens, there is extra fuel required for the additional landing and take-off to get back to the intended airport,” says Connett.

“In addition, the aircraft and crew may also not then be available for the next flight, creating further complexities. Then if the delay exceeds three hours, passengers may be able to claim for the delay under EU compensation laws.

“So, very quickly, an apparently small change in the weather can have a large impact on an airline and airport’s operation, leading to significant costs – possibly millions of pounds.”

Fuelling concern: jet streams and high costs

The above might be hypothesis, but according to researchers at the University of Reading’s meteorology department, flight times from the US to Europe are already being impacted by jet streams connected to climate change.

The study from last year, led by Dr Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist, examined flights between London’s Heathrow Airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International. It claims that round trips between the two hubs are, on average, one minute and 18 seconds longer than in years gone by.

With 300 round trips a day currently taking place across the Atlantic, Williams and his team worked out delays of 2,000 extra hours a year, together with a total outlay of $22m for extra fuel, and 70 million extra kilograms in carbon emissions.

“Climate change is currently having a significant impact on the aviation industry in two ways,” says Luke Storer, a meteorology expert and member of Williams’ team.

“The first is the direct impact of more turbulence and weight restrictions impacting airline operations.

“The second is that, as the next generation of aircraft are currently in the design phase, manufacturers are currently having to factor in how climate change might impact aircraft in the future and design the aircraft now to minimise future problems.”

If airline fuel costs are set to rise, the most logical way for operators to cope will be to pass them over to passengers by way of higher airfares, adds Storer, although there is no clear example of this having happened just yet.

“If the airline operators are facing an increase in costs due to more severe weather, turbulence, or weight restrictions, then it stands to reason that these costs will be passed on to passengers,” he says.

“It is too early to see any evidence of that yet, and it is unclear how much ticket prices might rise.”

Always check the forecast: the importance of contingency planning

Airlines and airports might not have the power to change the weather, but they can implement and make use of contingency measures.

Since 2012, the Met Office has provided a risk forecast of thunderstorms within the London Terminal Manoeuvring Area – the section of airspace directly over the capital – to the UK Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP).

This gives the ANSP advance warnings of thunderstorms and cumulonimbus clouds – dense towering vertical clouds associated with thunder – allowing for air traffic flows to be altered ahead of the event.

"More recently, we have announced that for the first time, a team of Met Office meteorologists are going to be based 24/7 at the [air traffic control group] NATS control centre."

The same goes for snow: “one of the few weather events that can effectively close an airport, due to safety concerns,” says Connett.

In addition to deploying snow-clearing vehicles, chemicals and extra staff, some UK airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick, make use of on-site Met Office teams for updated advice and to inform decision-making.

“We continue to build and develop our relationships across the industry to improve the overall safety and efficiency of aviation,” says Connett.

“More recently, we have announced that for the first time, a team of Met Office meteorologists are going to be based 24/7 at the [air traffic control group] NATS control centre in Hampshire, and will work directly with air traffic controllers to support safety-based operation, while maximising airspace and airport capacity.”