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?