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Here's how climate change could make air travel longer, more expensive

Flight delays and cancelations are a major source of flight frustrations. They're bout to get worse.

WASHINGTON — Like the rain, the stories of air travel gone wrong because of weather just keep pouring in.  

"The winds were so bad, that they had to reroute the plane," said Thomas Harrison.  "I thought I wasn't going to go home."

For Bob Kochersberger,  a weather cancellation landed him an extra night in Philadelphia. 

"It was the last plane of the day, which I rarely do, and it was canceled because of weather," Kochersberger said. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) found weather to be the main source of air travel delays in the National Aviation System Delays.  In 2022, FAA data reported to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that weather caused more than 4,000 delays at Regan National Airport, totaling 254,583 minutes of delay.   

At Washington Dulles International Airport, FAA data found more than 1,000 delays due to weather in 2022, resulting in more than 104,000 minutes of delay.   

At Thurgood Marshall airport in the Baltimore region, the FAA calculated more than 2,000 delays, totaling more than 126,000 minutes. 

With the planet warming and the climate changing, experts say that there could be more inconveniences such as the potential for more delays, cancellations, longer flying times, or getting bumped from your flight. 

"There's an expectation that there will be more severe storms. Of course, nobody wants to take off or land in a thunderstorm. That will mean delays," said Dr. Russel Dickerson, a professor in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department at the University of Maryland.

Too hot to fly?

To get in the air, airplanes need lift. To aid in this, wind speeds around the wing and air density come into play.  When it is too warm outside, the air is not as dense, meaning there are not enough air molecules around the wing to generate lift.  To overcome that, airplanes pick up speed.  But to get the speed, pilots need a long runway.  For airports like Regan National, also known as "DCA",  it's a challenge. 

"On a hot day, you can have 10% less density than on a cold day. So you need more runway to get that speed. DCA National Airport's longest runway is only about 7,100 feet. That sounds like a lot, but both Dulles and BWI have runways that are 10,500 feet long. So DCA is particularly sensitive to what we call density altitude or really hot days," Dickerson said. 

To take off on a hot day, the plane has to "go on a diet" and lose weight. This is where weight restrictions come in, when planes have to ditch fuel, luggage or passengers to get light enough for take off.  

"Usually they do luggage, fuel and passengers, in that order, to try to minimize the inconvenience to people," Dickerson said.

A Columbia University study found that when temperatures reach about 87 degrees at Reagan National, some planes have to shed 10,000 pounds. Researchers estimated that weight restriction days occur about 50 days per year Regan National, and that number may go up to 60 to 80 days per year. 

"It's possible that delays could increase, but many delays are as much related to congested airspace and airports, as well as to the ripple effects of previous delays on an airline's schedules, as they are directly to weather conditions," said Dr. Ethan Coffel, a co-author of the study.  "So how delays change in the future is heavily influenced by how our aviation infrastructure changes."

A longer or shorter flight

Let's say you make it on the plane and it takes off, climate change may impact how long it takes you to reach your destination. Many planes ride along what's called the jet stream. It's a band of fast-moving air high in the atmosphere.  The jet stream and it's strong winds can help push planes along faster.  But research shows that the jet stream is potentially getting stronger and this may make some flights shorter and others longer.  

“So if you go to Europe, it's an hour or two faster to get to Frankfurt, Germany than it is to come home. And that's because you can catch the Jetstream flying to Europe and avoid the Jetstream coming back," Dr. Dickerson explained.  "But with climate change that jet stream is going to change intensity and position that might move further north might make it harder to find. So that could make the trip slower. And that means more expensive.”

Adapting in the Air 

There may be a way a way to soften the landing a bit.  Dickerson said the industry could adapt with longer runways or reconfiguring airplanes.

Storms can strike at any time, but most storms occur during the afternoon and evening hours, especially in the spring and summer. Booking an early morning flight may help you dodge a storm or two. 

Travelers said that they plan to pack their patience and fasten their seatbelts.  

“I think it's the flight delays due to weather are all right, if there's an airport with enough charging stations," said Sneha Dave, a passenger at Reagan National. 

Fellow passenger Debra Faulk agreed. 

"I think over the years, we've just learned to say it's part of the travel experience," Faulk said. 

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