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The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter.

Cyclones and a warmer planet cause issues for air travel

The last few weeks has seen major centres in the US and Asia hit hard by a series of cyclones. While not unusual during Northern Hemisphere autumns, we’re seeing an increase in intensity and frequency due to the very real effects of climate change.

As well as turmoil and devastation on the ground, major weather events can cause havoc for aviation flight plans, leading to widespread travel disruption.

A recent article in The Independent references James Kossin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and his study – published in Nature – which suggests slow moving tropical cyclones, such as Florence and Harvey, have become more common over the last 70 years.

Kossin explained global warming is a result of man-made air pollution and is causing the North and South poles to become warmer. This reduces the difference in temperature between the Arctic, Antarctic, and the equator, altering atmospheric pressure and slowing down the whipping currents of wind that pass between them and drive hurricanes.

“The weakening of these winds has also been blamed for the stalling that gave rise to UK’s recent summer heatwave.”

NZALPA Vice President and experienced international pilot Kim George commends the skills of Air New Zealand and other operators’ flight planners in making sure their pilots stay well clear of these weather systems, including ensuring there are extra fuel reserves.

“This means they never fly over the top (of such events) but always around,” George explained.

This is particularly important given some of the national airline’s destinations, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, and once again Taiwan from November 2018, which are known for their dramatic weather events. Meanwhile, George points to Queensland destinations and flight routes in the Pacific Islands that are increasingly at the mercy of tropical cyclones.

“Generally, we just don’t fly there when these systems begin to affect the weather, principally because we don’t want an aircraft caught on the ground and unable to depart,” said George.

Houston was an example of such an incident just over a year ago, leading to the stranding of Air New Zealand passengers and crew for several days in the wake of Hurricane Harvey (later downgraded to Tropical Depression Harvey).

More recently, the UK’s The Telegraph looked at the likely effects of rising temperatures on air travel, caused by the increasing effects of climate change. This also followed the approval for American Airlines to fly in the US at higher temperatures after the airline had grounded dozens of flights due to extreme weather the previous summer.

In hot weather, planes can struggle to generate enough lift during take-off because warm air is thinner than cool air. Some researchers warn that as we experience more changes to the climate, cancellations due to high temperatures may become more common.

As explained in The Telegraph, every aircraft has a maximum operating temperature, which is set by the manufacturer and approved by regulators. If the air temperature exceeds that limit, planes are not permitted to take off.

The Independent has suggested five other ways climate change could impact air travel.

More turbulence

Passenger planes are likely to be buffeted by up to three times more turbulence in upcoming decades, according to researchers at the University of Reading.

“Air turbulence is increasing across the globe, in all seasons and at multiple cruising altitudes,” said Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, who led the study. “This problem is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change.”

Longer flights

Scientists linked a small increase in return journey times of long-haul flights to an increase in the variation of the jet stream, the high-altitude air that flows from west to east. This will also add to further Co2 emissions.

More weight restrictions

If planes need to fly higher to avoid turbulence then they would need to be lighter, which means the weight of the aircraft – and possibly passengers' luggage, or even passengers themselves – could invite greater scrutiny.

Airport closures

The world's major airports were not built with climate change in mind – they simply needed to be far from big towns and tall mountains, so coastal areas and river deltas were often chosen as suitable locations. These low-lying sites, however, could now be vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Longer runways

Warmer temperatures mean planes have a tougher time taking off, and during heatwaves airports with short runways are the first to face problems.

To read the full stories go to https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/hurricane-climate-change-increase-number-danger-damage-typhoons-storm-wind-rains-a8532741.html and https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/ways-climate-change-could-affect-flying/

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