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Fasten your seatbelts: Climate change may cause more air turbulence


With the recent sweep of natural disasters hitting the American South and the Caribbean, climate change – which many believe to be responsible – has become a crucial topic. And according to recent studies, climate change isn’t just affecting where we travel; it’s also impacting how we travel.

According to several research papers, global warming is expected to have a major impact on the aviation industry. Dr Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading, published a report in 2016 on the effects of climate change on aviation that suggests it is contributing to turbulence becoming up to 59% more common by the mid-century, increasing flight times and resulting in more frequent delays. Here’s how commercial flights could be impacted and why traveling by private jet charter can help.

What causes turbulence?

Turbulence can be caused by storms, clouds and mountains, but the most common cause of a bumpy flight is clear air turbulence. Here’s how it works: air flows around the globe in winding rivers called “jet streams”, which move at speeds up to 250 mph and can go on for thousands of miles. Pilots use jet streams to their advantage, flying with them to cut fuel costs and increase speed (this is called a tailwind). Conversely, flying against a jet stream (called a headwind) uses more fuel and increases flight times. This is why a flight from New York to London is shorter than the return journey. Clear-air turbulence is created when a fast-moving jet stream meets the slow-moving air outside, making the air feel choppy.

Turbulence can be anxiety-inducing, even for frequent fliers. But there’s no need for concern; it’s is a normal part of flying and (as long as you fasten your seatbelt) only dangerous in the rarest of circumstances. But while turbulence is not inherently unsafe, it does have implications for the aviation industry.

What is the link between climate change and turbulence?

A propellor airplane leaves a turbulent vortex, highlighted by red smoke
A propellor airplane leaves a turbulent vortex, highlighted by red smoke

In the report mentioned above by Dr Paul Williams, it is suggested that if carbon dioxide concentration hasn’t been cut by the middle of the century, air turbulence will significantly increase. Dr Williams expects light turbulence to boost by an average of 59%, moderate turbulence by 94% and severe turbulence by 149% (though severe turbulence is so rare that the numbers are less certain).

According to the study, the greater concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making jet streams stronger. On 5th January, 2015, a Boeing 777 flight operated by British Airways set the record for a New York to London flight, clocking in at just five hours and 16 minutes. Conversely, the flight back from London to New York is getting longer, and unfortunately the flight times do not cancel out. The study claims that collectively, aircraft will be in-flight for an extra 2,000 hours annually, costing an additional $22 million each year in jet fuel.

What does this mean for commercial flight customers?

The implications for commercial customers go further than a less comfortable flight. Fares are set to increase too, with that extra $22 million in fuel costs being passed along to the consumer. This amount doesn’t take into account the additional fuel pilots use when they redirect flights to avoid turbulence, so the number will likely be even higher.

It’s not just turbulence that could cause fares to rise: higher temperatures also affect aviation. A heatwave in Arizona in June 2017 caused dozens of planes to be grounded and a report by Columbia University and Logistics Management Institute claims that incidents like this are likely to increase in the decades to come.

As the temperature rises, air density declines. This results in less lift generation, which means a plane needs to work harder to get off the ground. As such, maximum takeoff weight for flights leaving at the hottest time of day may need to decrease by as much as 4%. This will result in fewer seats, higher fares and more stringent luggage restrictions.

How can flying by private jet help?

Instead of ending up stranded at the airport due to heat or bad weather, private charter flights can take off in a wide range of conditions. If one airport is particularly affected, a flexible charter is able to quickly change airport at the last minute.

Private jets can also help if you’re hoping to avoid turbulence as they often fly higher than commercial aircraft, traveling above the bad weather that can cause a bumpy ride. Many private jets, like the Bombardier Global 6000, are also capable of climbing far faster than a commercial jet, meaning that if there is a little turbulence, you’ll be above it and cruising smoothly in no time.

While private jet passengers can still be affected by the greater fuel costs caused by longer travel times, they aren’t subject to the strict luggage restrictions imposed on commercial flights. As long as the plane remains under capacity, you can pack as much as you’d like.

Contact us to learn more about booking a private charter flight for your next journey. We’ll make the entire process a smooth ride, from start to finish.

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