Planes Can’t Soar in Soaring Temperatures
Emirates is now faced with the realities of aviation in an increasingly hotter environment. With skyrocketing temperatures in the city, Emirates must find a way to mitigate the challenges of flying in higher temperatures and adopt a comprehensive environmental sustainability plan.
What happens when the man-made activities that have caused global warming are threatened by that very same warming of the planet? Climate change has come full circle. As temperatures rise, rendering certain parts of the world nearly uninhabitable, the aviation industry is faced with a looming problem. As the world gets hotter, airports face a multitude of challenges: storm surges and flooding of airports at low elevations, melted tarmac at airports experiencing dangerously high temperatures, and most importantly, difficulty taking off in hotter weather.
Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai, one of the most adversely affected airports in the world by global warming, is now faced with the realities of aviation in an increasingly hotter environment. With skyrocketing temperatures in the city, Emirates must find a way to not only mitigate these new challenges but also to adopt a comprehensive environmental sustainability plan.
Last year, American Airlines was forced to cancel dozens of flights out of Phoenix Airport when temperatures reached 120oF. In Dubai, such high temperatures are far from an aberration. In the summer, average highs in Dubai sit at approximately 106oF and have reached record highs of 125oF. If world temperatures are only expected to increase, this poses a serious threat to the airport’s operations, in turn creating a massive problem for Emirates. “Researchers determined the heat could lead to thinner profit margins, as airlines won’t be able to sell as many seats…What’s more, the delays and cancellations could also impact other sectors of the economy.”
To solve this problem, airlines may be forced to rethink the design of future airplane models as heavier planes experience more difficulty taking off in high temperatures than lighter planes. Reuters reported that “Airlines may increasingly be forced to cut their loads of passengers, cargo or fuel in order to take off safely because warming air lessens the ability of airplane wings to generate lift…” and Dubai is likely be one of the hardest hit. Delta has a served as a role model in aviation as the first US airline to implement a carbon emissions offset program in 2007. While airlines can follow Delta’s lead, ultimately the simplest immediate solution is to reduce the number of passengers, thus reducing the payload, aboard each aircraft as well as developing new, lighter airplanes. Studies have shown that a 160-passenger aircraft would need to reduce its passenger count by thirteen in order to take off in extreme temperatures. While the loss of revenue from reducing the number of passengers aboard an aircraft would be crippling, the cost of increasing numbers of cancelled and delayed flights as a result of higher temperatures would likely exceed the former.
Furthermore, Emirates could implement a weight based model for luggage by charging passengers even higher fees for overweight luggage than traditionally charged thus discouraging people from being heavy bags onboard. In the longer term, Emirates could explore partnerships with other airlines to meet goals around carbon footprint.
Thus far Emirates has made some effort to reduce its carbon emissions. In 2016 Emirates expanded its fleet with 36 new aircraft and retired 29 older ones. Emirates stated that by replacing its fleet with newer planes, it reduces their overall carbon footprint. Newer planes are also more likely to be lighter, helping mitigate the weight issue upon take off in hotter climates. However, in building lighter planes, Emirates must consider the implications of flying through different weather conditions with a lighter aircraft as global warming has also made air travel more turbulent and lighter planes could potentially be less stable. This move is part of Emirate’s broader new environmental policies. In 2016 Emirates implemented a drywash technique to clean its entire fleet. Rather than hosing down their aircraft as do many other airlines, Emirates uses minimal water by drywashing their planes. These initiatives indicate that Emirates understands the severity of the climate crisis and is willing to develop new procedures for the sake of the environment.
While Emirates cannot singlehandedly solve the climate crisis, it can take similar actions to Delta’s, which will move society in the direction of sustainable energy and environmental protection. Ultimately, air travel is one of the predominant contributors to global warming, producing 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and expected to rise by 50% by 2050. However, airlines must decide whether to prioritize reducing emissions to help solve the climate crisis on a global scale or to prioritize building a fleet less susceptible to rising temperatures. Airlines could simply invest in new, lighter, planes without focusing on reducing their carbon footprint. But should they? Will airlines such as Emirates prioritize saving the planet or saving their business? Or are they ultimately one and the same — two problems inextricably linked?
Student comments on Planes Can’t Soar in Soaring Temperatures
This is incredibly fascinating. Unlike many of the other sustainability posts, yours is actually sustainability efforts driven by market need. I’m curious if you think that the relative cost of R&D for newer, lighter planes will outweigh the costs of just reducing the number of passengers, or at what point the efficiencies will reach a breaking point making it more worth it to change the planes vs take the hit of lower customer capacity.
I really enjoyed this post! I’m curious to know if you thought about how consolidation in the airline industry could help Emirates improve its global footprint. We saw consolidation with Virgin and Alaska, and US Airways and American Airlines – do you think that teaming up with other airlines could help Emirates pool resources, cut down on emissions and generally operate more efficiently? I think there’s an opportunity for Emirates to share its best practices with other players (like drywashing planes), but it will be difficult to enforce these practices without connecting the players.
Great post!! I’ve been curious about higher temperatures’ effect on air travel ever since I heard about what happened at the Phoenix and Las Vegas airports last summer so I was glad to read about it from your perspective. It sounds great that the planes can still take off in higher temperatures if they reduce their weight via passengers or bags. However, I’m curious – how do these high temperatures affect the safety of the passengers? Would the high temperatures impact on the inability to take off make flying less safe? Would increasing safety risks cause Emirates to also lose business?
Jets contributes more to climate change than all the cars on all the world’s roads. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/sep/09/carbon-emissions-planes-shipping)
Instead of expecting industries to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprint, should gov’t increase the tax burden of air travel to fund carbon reduction efforts? If this tax burden ultimately falls on passengers, is this smart policy?
(I’m sure we’ll get into this in BGIE next semester.)
Very interesting article! As I read it, I was struggling with one of the questions that you posed towards the end: Does it really make sense for an airline like Emirates to make an effort to reduce its carbon emissions? Initially, I thought the answer was necessarily ‘no’, because it just seemed to be such a low-return investment. Even if they were able to get all the airlines in the world to follow – which seems like a long shot – they would be addressing less than 2% of their actual problem. And Emirates is, after all, a for-profit organization so they probably cannot afford to embark on such a costly mission for – arguably – symbolic reasons. Is there a way for Emirates to contribute to such a broad and complex problem while getting a return on its investment? After giving it some thought, two ideas came to mind. By implementing them, they might be able to capitalize their efforts and even gain a competitive edge.
1. Advertising their efforts both to customers and investors. Although air travel is a price sensitive industry, brand awareness/image still plays a role for customers and global warming is becoming an important component of this. From an investor’s perspective, Emirates efforts can signal an adequate management of the imminent risk of increasingly strict regulations around environmental impact.
2. Perhaps more importantly: lobbying. If Emirates is able to follow Delta and become an industry leader in terms of reduced emissions, they could push regulators to set higher standards and more strict laws/norms around emissions. Competitors who have not taken actions on his regard will necessarily be in disadvantage.
How else can Emirates help reduce carbon emissions while getting a return on its investment?
I think a further challenge for Emirates to consider is on the customer demand side. Will certain markets and geographies still remain as attractive as temperatures rise? While certain types of travel will likely be inelastic to temperatures (e.g., people returning home to see their families, business travel, etc.), it’s possible that tourism may decline in certain regions of the world as temperatures rise. This would lead to the same number of airlines competing for a diminishing pool of travel, and could compound the revenue challenge the author describes. Emirates may want to examine where the bulk of its routes sit today, and which type of customers are flying – tourists vs. business – and assess whether moving into more northern markets may make sense.
That’s a very interesting article! Coming from the aviation industry, I can confirm that high temperatures are a key issue when analyzing potential new routes. Las Vegas, for example, is a really attractive summer destination for international airlines, but they have been struggling to operate profitably due to weight limitations caused by high temperatures. Some airlines, like Norwegian , were even forced to cancel their existing Las Vegas route for this same reason.
To address your question, airlines are already committed to address climate change. The aviation industry has already set a carbon-neutral growth target by 2020, with the goal of keeping carbon emissions constant regardless of the industry’s growth. They pretend to achieve that through the use of improved fuel efficiency, lighter materials, biofuels, and carbon offsets. Despite some technological breakthroughs such as 3D Printing which will play a critical role in reducing weight and emissions, it is yet to be seen if airlines will be able to meet their target.