Longer flights expected due to climate change

Bad news for anyone planning to fly to the US in the future, as climate change could ramp up your journey times and ticket prices.

10th February 2016
Longer flights expected due to climate change (iStock)

Not everybody hates tucking into unrecognisable foodstuffs and watching three romantic comedies in a row, but for all the people that do find transatlantic flights unbearable, climate change could be about to make everything just that little bit worse.

The journey between the United States and Europe is one of the world’s busiest routes for flights, but rather than travel the shortest distance in a straight line, aeroplanes often alter their routes to take advantage of strong tailwinds or avoid headwinds caused by the jet stream, which crosses the Atlantic at high altitude. But a study by the University of Reading has found that climate change is accelerating this jet stream, leading to planes spending an extra 2,000 hours in the air each year.

As well as burning through your holiday time in New York, this will burn through an extra 7.2 million gallons of jet fuel per year, contributing to an extra 70 million kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of more than 7000 British homes. Your pocket will also feel the burn, this extra fuel will cost airlines a cool $22 million, and we know where that will land – ticket prices.

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

If you can find any glimmer of hope in the news that current carbon emissions will ultimately lead to more carbon emissions, the journey times back from the New York to London will be up to 15 per cent shorter. The current record was set last year by a British Airways 777, which completed the journey in 5h 16m riding a strong jet stream, and we can expect this to be broken as climate change takes hold. Unfortunately, this still won’t be fast enough to make up for the westbound journey.

“The good news is that eastbound flights will be boosted by stronger tailwinds, but not enough to compensate for the longer westbound journeys,” says Dr Williams. “The net result is that roundtrip journeys will significantly lengthen.

What will you be doing with your added flight time?

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