In a twist of fate, climate change is exacerbating the challenges of air travel, creating a new layer of misery for passengers and airlines alike. As temperatures soar due to global warming, the very air that planes need to lift off becomes less cooperative.

When the mercury climbs, hot air’s reduced density causes planes to struggle for lift, complicating takeoffs and in-flight stability. Airlines often resort to delaying flights or unloading cargo and passengers to mitigate the issue, leading to a cascade of disruptions across the aviation system. Stranded on runways, passengers endure stifling conditions within grounded aircraft.

Experts warn that this problem is set to intensify as the planet heats up further and the frequent occurrence of extreme heat becomes the norm. A Columbia University study projected that by mid-century, up to 30 per cent of all US flights could be subject to weight restrictions during periods of high heat.


Regrettably, there’s no silver bullet to overcome this challenge. Ethan Coffel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, explains that it’s a physical limitation tied to air density, leaving limited room for technological solutions.

Heat-related delays are emerging as a more substantial issue than snow or ice. Last summer, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport faced twice the number of weather-related delays compared to the previous winter. The impact is especially pronounced at airports with shorter runways, like New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which struggles to handle the volume of traffic it receives.

Airports in high-altitude regions and warm climates are hit particularly hard by this heat-induced predicament. Denver and the Sun Belt cities face additional hurdles, with workers on scorching runways at risk due to the “heat island” effect. Despite efforts to make aircraft lighter and more efficient, progress is incremental, leaving airports to rely on conventional solutions like rescheduling flights and strengthening runways.

The compounding effects of climate change on air travel are undeniable. Turbulence grows riskier, flights lengthen due to shifting wind patterns, and extreme weather spawns more delays. To truly address this issue, a holistic approach is required, including a concerted effort to reduce fossil fuel emissions, a primary driver of climate change. Amidst these challenges, the future of air travel remains uncertain, prompting travellers to brace for increasingly tumultuous skies.