Airline Disasters: Is Climate Change a Culprit?


           Though it may appear insignificant at first glance, the Earth has warmed by approximately two degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. This trend is attributed to the greenhouse effect, which is the trapping of the sun’s heat in the lower atmosphere due to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The phenomenon explains why glaciers are continuously melting, and the oceans are rising at an accelerating rate. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, many individuals continue to deny its existence, including the President, who, according to the New York Times, “has claimed that scientists are engaged in a worldwide hoax to fool the public, or that global warming was invented by China to disable American industry” (Gillis, Justin).
           The adverse effects of climate change are already noticeable in the deteriorating coral reefs and intensifying tropical storms. Some fear that if emission caps are not implemented immediately, governments could become destabilized and produce millions of refugees. We are already experiencing the implications of global warming; for example, the drought in California State had an estimated cost of over two billion dollars. Coastal cities could soon be submerged underwater, as sea levels rise at a rate of around a foot per century. Governments and property owners will lose tens of billions of dollars.
           Solutions such as carbon taxes and cleaner energy sources have been proposed, but climate change can only be mitigated successfully through collective efforts on a global scale.   


Osaka’s Kansai International Airport is one of Japan’s busiest airports, but in recent years, the artificial island has begun to sink more rapidly than engineers had predicted. After Typhoon Jebi, the airport was flooded with seawater, prompting a massive shut down and cancelation of services.

           Surprisingly, there exists a direct correlation between climate change and commercial aviation safety. Despite the undeniably reliable safety record of air travel, multiple aviation tragedies have occurred as a result of formidable weather phenomenon associated with a warming atmosphere (discussed below). On a daily basis, temperature and airport elevation influence the allowable takeoff weights of aircraft by changing the air density and lift produced at a given speed. There is a certain temperature threshold above which an airplane cannot take off and its load must be restricted. As a consequence of global warming, for a Boeing 737-800 aircraft, a report from Columbia found that the number of weight restriction days between May and September will increase by up to two-hundred percent at the four largest airports in the United States by 2050 (“Climate Change; Reports”). In June 2017, American Airlines was forced to cancel more than forty flights in Phoenix, Arizona because daytime highs were hovering around 120 degrees Fahrenheit—it was simply too hot for smaller jets to take off (Ives, Mike). Extreme heat can also affect airport workers, as dehydration and heat stroke become possibilities as they service aircraft between flights.

           In addition to the negative impacts of higher temperatures from global warming, climate change is also degrading air travel safety with regards to volatile weather. A quarter of the world’s 100 busiest airports are situated less than ten meters (or 32 feet) above sea level. Although low-lying areas along the water are favorable locations for large airports because of relatively few obstacles and thicker air densities for lift, the coasts provide fewer natural protections against flooding and high winds (Tabuchi, Hiroko). For example, Osaka’s Kansai International is the world’s largest floating airport, built on an artificial island to avoid violent protests over land rights and noise complaints. It opened in 1994, and the bridge that connects the island to the mainland is nearly four-thousand meters (12,300 feet) long. Engineers had expected the island to sink less than a foot per year at the start of construction, as the seabed settled under the airport’s weight. However, in just its first seven years, the island has fallen more than thirty feet, now more susceptible to extreme weather events than ever before (Tabuchi, Hiroko). As Typhoon Jebi hit Osaka in September 2017, the storm’s 130 mile-per-hour winds damaged the bridge to the mainland, stranding over 8,000 passengers in the darkened terminals overnight. To combat the sinking terminal, engineers have been forced to turn towards the last resort of pumping water from the seabed beneath the island to speed up the airport’s settlement. Their previously boasted seawalls, claimed to be capable of withstanding surges, proved insufficient as waves crashed over and swamped the airport’s pumps (Tabuchi, Hiroko). All aircraft operations were suspended. Such occurrences will become more frequent and forceful as the Earth’s climate continues to warm. 


Microbursts are rarely caught on camera,
but this clip is a timelapse that was captured
by an amateur photographer in August 2015
in Tucson, Arizona.

           In the near future, two severe weather phenomenon known as windshear and “microbursts” will become more frequent as climate change begets more extreme weather events. Today, airline pilots have the technology to detect and avoid such typhoons and storms entirely. But, since the 1970s, a pilot’s greatest fear has been windshear. Associated with thunderstorm activity, windshear is a sudden change in wind direction and speed, often occurring when an aircraft is close to the ground and most vulnerable. In its most dangerous form, a “microburst” can develop, which first manifest itself as an increasing headwind but unexpectedly drops downwards with heavy rain and winds of up to one hundred miles per hour. Any aircraft flying within its two-mile diameter on final approach to an airport is doomed. There is absolutely no maneuver that can save it because its altitude is too low.
           Fortunately, the busiest airports have technology including large Terminal Doppler Weather Radars (TDWR) to detect such severe weather. But, at regional airports in more rural areas, where microbursts can materialize more frequently, both pilots and air traffic controllers operate blindly without these expensive technologies. Accidents that are attributed to unforeseeable weather circumstances fall under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Inclement Weather or Windshear Accident Threat Category. In the past, there have been a handful of noteworthy airline crashes that were catalysts for the development of current windshear mitigation strategies, including Eastern Airlines Flight 66.


           On June 24th, 1975, Eastern Airlines Flight 66 was approaching New York JFK International Airport’s Runway 22L, when it encountered heavy winds associated with a thunderstorm. The Boeing 727-200 tri-jet impacted the approach lights short of the runway and subsequently caught fire. With a destroyed aircraft, of the 124 people aboard, 113 passengers and crew members were killed (eleven survivors). According to the FAA, this accident “highlighted the inadequacies of terminal area weather analysis related to the recognition, and reporting of severe weather information” (“Eastern Airlines B727”). In the years following the accident, meteorological analysis and research resulted in the development and implementation of the Low-Level Windshear Alert System (LLWAS) at over one-hundred airports.

Singapore’s Changi International Airport has a Terminal Doppler Weather Radar atop its 81 meter (265 feet) Air Traffic Control Tower.
The remains of Eastern Airlines Flight 66 litter Rockaway Boulevard (above) on June 24, 1975, after the 727 encountered a thunderstorm downdraft and crashed short of the runway. (Photo by Jim Hughes/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)


“In regards to aircraft emissions that can contribute to climate change, the industry will continue to implement operational procedures that save fuel. For example, in an ideal situation, we could have aircraft smooth out their descent and approach path to take advantage of their altitude and speed” – Dan Cheney (FAA)

           Mr. Daniel Cheney is the Manager of Safety Program in the Transport Airplane Directorate at the FAA. In early April of 2019, I had the opportunity to interview him on his perspective regarding the relationship between climate change and aviation safety. Fortunately, he stated that the technologies that have been developed to limit the risk of a weather-related tragedy, as global warming accelerates, have been particularly noteworthy accomplishments. When Delta Airlines Flight 191 crashed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in 1985, a decade after the Eastern Airlines disaster, multiple initiatives were added to the Federal Aviation Regulations. These include equipping aircraft with approved airborne windshear warning and flight guidance systems as well as requiring flight operators to administer a low-altitude windshear flight training program for pilots.
           However, Mr. Cheney also believes that the installments of modern technology could also pose a threat to airline safety, even as it works to mitigate the safety hazards attributed to climate change. As younger flight pilots enter the industry with less experience, airliners continue to become more advanced. Similar to the recent Boeing 737 MAX crashes from Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines, where both crews were unaware of automation designed to keep the aircraft safe, pilots today could experience technology confusion.

The Vaisala AviMet® LLWAS is the newest ground based Windshear Alert System that incorporates the latest version of the phase III windshear algorithm developed for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and patented by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Foundation (UCAR).


“Airlines are driven by economics and its main concern is to run as efficiently as possible; they are motivated. Cutting just ten minutes of flight and arriving early not only saves fuel, but also improves their airline’s on-time arrival ratings” – Captain William Chace

            I also interviewed Mr. William Chace, a retired Boeing 747 Captain who flew for thirty-five years with Northwest Airlines, for his perspective on the future of aviation. He claims that technology, despite high costs, will eventually outpace the negative impacts of climate change. The airline’s primary goal is to make money, and a company’s safety record is of high importance. Additionally, airlines will learn to fly more efficiently because fuel composes one-third of all operating costs. In the past, pilots had to stop at large cities with zig-zagging flight plans due to limited navigation systems. However, today, routes are much more direct, and pilots often request higher or lower altitudes to achieve the maximum performance of their aircraft. Airlines also keep flights grounded for as long as possible when air traffic is congested to prevent long holding patterns in the air around airports. Pilots also strive to descend at idle and delay their descent to save fuel. Within the next half century, all-electric planes could enter service, revolutionizing sustainable air travel.


            Unfortunately, commercial aircraft are the most significant greenhouse gas-emitting source not subject to regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Jet exhaust can be up to four times more causative of global warming than carbon dioxide released at ground level. However, about eighty percent of these emissions are from flights of more than 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), at which no alternative rapid transportation method often exists (“Aviation Emissions and Contrails.”). While global air travel is essential, aircraft and routes must become more efficient. Therefore, commercial aviation is involved in a climate change paradox, in which aircraft contributions to global warming lead to dangerous flying scenarios. We must strive to collectively mitigate aircraft emissions as the industry continues to grow exponentially.

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  1. April 27, 2019 by Arun Parwani

    This is amazing! I’ve always been really interested in planes, and your part about windshear reminded me of Delta Airlines Flight 191, where a Lockheed Tristar got caught in a microburst on short final. I really loved your connection between air travel and global warming. Great job!

  2. April 28, 2019 by Anya Krishnan

    Super interesting! I never realized there was a correlation between climate change and aviation safety.

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