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Rising temperatures around the world make it more challenging for planes to take off, hurting the airline industry. As global warming continues, this could force commercial airplanes to leave more and more passengers on the ground.
“The basic challenge facing any aircraft as it takes off is that planes are just very heavy, and gravity wants to keep them on the ground,” says Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the UK. “In order to overcome gravity, they need to generate lift, which is the atmosphere pushing the plane up.”
“Lift depends on several factors, but one of the most important is the temperature of the air — and as the air warms up it expands, so the number of molecules available to push the plane up is reduced.”
Planes get 1 percent less lift with every 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) of temperature rise, Williams said.
Airplanes are especially affected by temperature in areas with high altitudes and short runways. In these places, the air is already thin, making it difficult for planes to generate lift, and they do not have much room to accelerate.
To figure out exactly how much rising temperatures are affecting commercial airplanes, Williams and his team gathered historical data from 10 airports in Greece, all of which see high summer temperatures and have short runways. They calculated the performance of the Airbus A320 – one of the most popular airplanes in the world – from its introduction in 1988 to 2017.
“What we found was that the maximum takeoff weight has been reduced by 280 pounds (127 kilograms) each year — that’s roughly equivalent to the weight of one passenger plus their suitcase, meaning one less passenger each year that can be carried,” Williams says. This means that from 1988 to 2017, the A320 would have seen its maximum takeoff weight reduced by over 8,000 pounds.
Another study from Columbia University affirms this phenomenon. It predicts that by 2050, a typical narrowbody aircraft will obtain increased weight restrictions by anything from 50% to 200% during the summer months at four major US airports: La Guardia, Reagan National Airport, Denver International, and Sky Harbor.
Luckily, there are many ways airlines can fight this issue. Airports could schedule planes to take off at cooler times, such as in the morning and the evening. Lighter aircraft could be created from composite materials such as carbon fibers, which allows them to take off more easily. If needed, longer runways could be constructed at major airports.
“There are lots of solutions on the table,” says Williams. He believes that, with all of these ways to fight the issue, “People being bumped off aircraft because it’s too hot is rare and will remain rare.”
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