Climate change to increase cost and length of transatlantic flights

10 February 2016
By Tereza Pultarova
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The climate change will make transatlantic flights more expensive due to the accelerating jet stream

The climate change will make transatlantic flights more expensive due to the accelerating jet stream [Credit: University of Reading]

The effects of climate change will make transatlantic flights longer, leading to higher fuel costs for airlines as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study by scientists from the University of Reading.

The study estimates that the increased speed of the jet stream - predicted by climate researchers to be a probable result of global warming - will speed up eastbound but slow down westbound flights across the Atlantic Ocean. The duration of the delays is likely to outweigh the gains during the journeys in the direction of the jet stream.

As a result, an aircraft will spend a combined 2,000 extra hours every year in the air. This would add millions of dollars to the airlines' annual fuel bills. For passengers, it is likely to mean more expensive flight tickets.

“The aviation industry is facing pressure to reduce its environmental impacts, but this study shows a new way in which aviation is itself susceptible to the effects of climate change,” said Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading.

“The bad news for passengers is that westbound flights will be battling against stronger headwinds. The good news is that eastbound flights will be boosted by stronger tailwinds, but not enough to compensate for the longer westbound journeys. The net result is that round-trip journeys will significantly lengthen."

The study, published today in the IOP journal Environmental Research Letters, used a scenario when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles. Based on current emission forecasts, that is likely to happen within the next few decades.

Due to the extra time spent in the air, transatlantic flights will burn an extra $22m (£15m) worth of fuel annually and will emit an extra 70 million kilos of carbon dioxide – equivalent to the annual emissions of 7,100 British homes.

The average jet stream winds along the flight route between London’s Heathrow airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International airport are predicted to become 15 per cent faster.

As a result, London-bound flights will become twice as likely to take under 5h 20m, implying that record-breaking crossing times will occur with increasing frequency in future. On the other hand, New York-bound flights will become twice as likely to take over 7 hours, suggesting that delayed arrivals will become increasingly common.

Williams’ team previously found that clear air turbulence will become stronger and more frequent as a result of global warming.

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