In a Warming World, Keeping the Planes Running
New York Times, 30 September 2017
Airports are a major global business, part of an industry that by one estimate transports the equivalent of nearly half the world’s population in a single year. But the world’s airports were largely designed for an older era — a cooler one.
Many were built near seacoasts or river deltas to minimize disturbances to humans or avoid natural obstacles like mountains. Others have short runways because of space restrictions, while planners in the past gave little thought to how extreme temperatures could affect airplanes and airports.
Climate change is making airport planners think again.
Low-lying airports may become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges. Hotter temperatures may cause tarmac to melt, restrict takeoff weights or require heavier aircraft to take off later in the day.
Now governments, companies and experts around the world are grappling with what could be a very expensive problem. Keeping the industry aloft requires colossal investment — $1.1 trillion in airport infrastructure projects are planned or underway, the CAPA Center for Aviation, a consulting firm based in Australia, said in July.
“Airports understand well that climate change could have some far-reaching effects and that they are not immune to them,” said Angela Gittens, the director general at Airports Council International’s headquarters in Montreal.
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Climate scientists predict that sea levels could rise by as much as six or seven feet this century, and aviation experts say that even a much smaller rise could lead to more flooding at runways or terminals.
Preliminary studies indicate that dozens of airports are at risk. A 2009 report by Eurocontrol, a Brussels-based agency that coordinates air traffic management across Europe, estimated that more than 30 major European airports sat on coastlines or within river floodplains.
Some airports are already taking such warnings to heart.
In Hong Kong, officials say that a project to build a third airport runway on soon-to-be reclaimed land was influenced by climate and sea-level projections made in 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They say the $18 billion runway will have a sea wall that stands at least 21 feet above the waterline and can withstand 100-year storms, as well as a drainage system that is designed to handle rare floods.
In Norway, about 20 of the country’s 45 state-run airports are “quite exposed” to potential sea level rise, said Olav Mosvold Larsen, a climate change adviser at Avinor, the state-run airport operator. Avinor has decided to build all future runways at least 23 feet above sea level.
Sea level rise and storm surges have a “somewhat-nearer-term flavor” for airports than other climate-related risks, such as rising temperatures, said Terence R. Thompson, a senior fellow at the Logistics Management Institute in Virginia who studies links between aviation and climate change.
“You’ve got this complex, multisegment industrial site, and it’s not just ‘Does the runway go underwater?’” he said. For example, the flooding of a taxiway could force pilots to take longer taxi routes from terminals to runways, causing delays at one airport that ripple across many others, he said.
Climate scientists predict a global increase this century in the annual number of hot days and heat waves, and some airport planners worry that climate change could push airport infrastructure to the limits of its operating capacity.
Runways in northern Canada have already been damaged by thawing permafrost, for example, leading officials to commission permafrost studies ahead of a recent $240 million renovation of Iqaluit International Airport in the Canadian Arctic.
Concrete runway slabs at other airports may buckle from extreme heat, as similar slabs occasionally do on highways, and there is “serious concern” that asphalt on aprons and parking areas could melt, said Herbert Pümpel, a co-chairman of the World Meteorological Organization’s Expert Team on Aviation, Science and Climate.
Then there are concerns about aircraft.
A plane’s maximum operating temperature depends on a variety of factors, including airport elevation. But as temperatures climb far above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, airlines can begin suspending operations for certain types of planes, as American Airlines did in June when daytime highs in Phoenix climbed to about 120 degrees.
Captain Rajeev Bajpai, Air India’s general manager of operations for the country’s western region, said that extreme heat was already an aviation problem in notoriously hot countries like Kuwait, where planes can be grounded on summer days because their electronics automatically shut down.
“You can’t even get the flight going in the sense that you can’t even prepare the cockpit,” he said.
Hot temperatures cause air density to decrease, reducing lift and forcing airlines to either reduce weight on flights or move departures to cooler hours of the day. Experts say that will most likely pose a long-term economic challenge for airports, especially ones with humid climates, high altitudes or short runways.
The cost of having a short runway in a hot place became clear to planners at Brisbane Airport in Australia, who studied climate models and airlines’ financial data in 2009 while designing the airport’s second runway, said Karyn Rains, the project’s former environment manager.
They discovered that because of an expected spike in the number of annual 86-plus-degree days in Brisbane, airlines would be forced to spend more than $79 million per year by 2035 if the second runway were 8,202 feet, rather than 10,826 feet. Ms. Rains said that was mostly because larger planes would be unable to land at an 8,202-foot runway under certain hot weather conditions, and would need to burn extra fuel while waiting to land at the privately owned airport’s original, 11,811-foot runway.
In that sense, Ms. Rains said, spending $53.5 million for an extra 2,624 feet of tarmac, or 7.8 percent of the second runway’s total estimated cost, made good business sense. “You ignore climate change impacts at your peril, really,” she said.
A study earlier this year in the journal Climatic Change, based on modeling for 19 major airports, found that 10 percent to 30 percent of annual flights departing at the hottest time of the day may require weight restrictions by the middle or end of this century.
The reductions would be small, perhaps 4 percent or less on average, the study said. But a reduction of even one-half of a percent could mean, for example, that an airline had to trim 722 pounds, or about three passengers, from a 160-passenger flight on a Boeing 737-800, possibly imposing a substantial economic burden over time.
“It’s not a catastrophic thing that’s going to cause great disruption, but it imposes a cost on the whole aviation system,” said Ethan D. Coffel, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at Columbia University. He said that the Middle East may be hardest hit because it has the world’s hottest weather and a high percentage of long-haul flights, which often take off near maximum weight capacity.
But weight restrictions could soon become more common in countries with temperate climates as well, experts said, and airports with short runways may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.