An extreme event in one location can trigger a delay that propagates through the commercial aviation system. Long-term threats, such as sea level rise, may also impact this fragile system.

Multiple climate-related events and impacts pose threats to regular aviation services. Commercial aviation schedules in the United States are very tight, with thousands of aircraft simultaneously aloft. Delays in any part of the system can propagate across the nation and around the world. The list of "extreme events" that concern the aviation sector are somewhat different than those that concern surface transportation. For instance, severe thunderstorms near major aviation hubs can cause major disruptions in aviation, but only transitory disruptions to surface transportation.

Among the potential impacts of climate change on aviation:

Map showing 13 U.S. airports vulnerable to storm surge

Thirteen of the nation’s 47 largest airports have at least one runway with an elevation within the reach of moderate to high storm surge. Sea level rise will pose a threat to low-lying infrastructure, such as the airports shown here.

  • Higher temperatures can reduce maximum takeoff weights or require longer takeoff distances, particularly at hot or high airports, such as those in Phoenix and Denver.
  • Service interruptions or damage may result from storm surge or flooding at low-lying airports. Locations of concern include New Orleans, New York City, Miami, and San Francisco. 
  • Changes in the incidence of high winds, thunderstorms, tornados, snow, and ice storms may affect airline schedules.
  • Higher temperatures can soften or damage pavement on runways and taxiways, requiring more frequent repair or resurfacing.
  • Hours and productivity of outdoor flight line workers may be affected by higher temperatures.

This section was excerpted and abridged from the report Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (Chapter 5: Transportation).

Banner Image Credit
Aerial view of San Francisco International Airport in 2010. By Calbookaddict at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Last modified
22 November 2016 - 4:04pm