The airline industry has seen solid growth in recent years. The industry increased passenger traffic growth by about 5% from 2014 to 2015 and although there might be some signs of a slight downward shift in passenger growth, IATA’s Air Passenger Market Analysis notes “the global passenger market has made a robust start to 2016” .
Airlines have recently started paying attention to the effects of climate variability on their operations. When a plane is in flight, it emits greenhouse gases that contribute substantially to increased global temperatures known as global warming. As a consequence, climate changes impact the airline industry by resulting in longer flight times due to changes in weather patterns leading to more emissions and this perpetuates a dangerous feedback loop. Long story short, the irony is real in the airline industry when it comes to climate change!
HOW IS THIS HAPPENING?
According to a study published in the Nature Climate Change journal, climate change has caused a shift in wind patterns by accelerating the jet stream (aka winds flowing from west to east). In this study, the authors evaluated flight time data on three transatlantic flights on four major carriers (including Delta Airlines) over an 18-year period. The major finding from this study was the year over year variability in flight times on those routes where 88% of the variability was due to the El Nino Southern Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation , both climate phenomena! The study goes on to explore the difference between westbound and eastbound flights, pointing out an inverse relationship between westbound and eastbound flight times. In other words, when the jet stream is accelerated, eastbound flights are shorter while westbound flights are longer due to headwinds. However, the shorter eastbound flight times don’t necessarily offset longer westbound flight times so the net effect is still negative. For example, you might have a shorter flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles but that return flight to Honolulu will be longer.
(UN)EXPECTED ROUGH AIR
Delta Airlines is one of the world’s largest global airlines and operates more than 15,000 flights per day in conjunction with its transatlantic joint ventures . Adding a layer of possible climate change effects amplifies the variability in their current operations.
A flight travelling from the UK to NYC will undoubtedly experience a lot of bumps in the air due to the fact that it is westbound and facing headwinds. This means no “free time” to walk around the cabin because that seat belt sign will stay on. Increased turbulence in the air also disrupts the in-flight services while causing possible injury to crew and passengers. This could mean limited snack service and increased customer complaints to Delta.
Remember earlier when I said you might have a shorter trip from Honolulu to Los Angeles, but a longer return flight time? Well that’s no good for Delta. Longer flight times means potential flight delays which creates a major headache for the network and operations groups. Moreover, Delta might miss their on-time arrivals/departures, impacting performance metrics. Late arrivals or departures could have a ripple effect on their competitors’ operations as well.
Increased flight times equals more fuel needed and fuel used. This ultimately means Delta might have to shell out a lot more money for fuel on their transatlantic flights. High fuel costs could lead to a hike in airfares which will make customers unhappy.
CLEARING THE AIR: DELTA’S POSITION
Delta Airlines is dedicated to conducting its operations in a way that minimizes impact on the environment, by partnering up with programs like The Nature Conservancy that “strives to stop deforestation and promote alternative energy” . Delta is implementing internal and external strategies to reduce its carbon footprint to mitigate its contribution to climate change that ultimately negatively impacts its operations. Internally, Delta is improving fuel efficiency across its mainline fleet of about 800 aircraft. This will decrease fuel burned which reduces emissions and overall fuel expenses. Fuel efficiency also influences Delta’s aircraft purchasing decisions. The company aims to buy aircrafts that are designed to use lower amounts of fuel. On the external front, Delta fosters transparency and accountability by asking its customers to use their carbon calculator which basically helps them see how much carbon was emitted on any given flight. Additional actions include emissions verification CDP and reporting carbon emissions to the EU Emissions and EPA Reporting organizations.
In addition to Delta’s commitment to reducing fuel emissions, I think Delta should study wind patterns in more depth to develop a better understanding of the shifts and associated variability so that they can structure their transatlantic operations around it.
 Air Passenger Market Analysis, May 2016 http://www.iata.org/whatwedo/Documents/economics/passenger-analysis-may-2016.pdf
 Coupling between air travel and climate http://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2715.epdf?referrer_access_token=if58MPIND0Xv55FMegdh4dRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0NtheGUmGndU-VQYgdQI0Twzyaah1WXIo_HHZ0TPXYRNSR1tzjG1Kd18v8cWEEAJu7dBmbY_XTf0hrDK09giIvMQTl3zRvQczgbGvLQN1YSrjvIOwRlM-A3ScDzODwhnAQ2D2fboNmSSBoyEzoQIlS2-Wbnuq7AsxtHRdIjj25dhQ%3D%3D&tracking_referrer=time.com
 Delta Financial and Operating Performance, October 2016 http://ir.delta.com/news-and-events/news/news-release-details/2016/Delta-Reports-Financial-and-Operating-Performance-for-October-2016/default.aspx
 Delta Corporate Responsibility http://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/carbon-emissions-calculator-https.html