Climate Change and Nature vs Aviation

Increasing incidents of severe air turbulence, news of damage caused to airports by extreme rainfall and flooding, and now, airspace again being closed because of erupting volcanoes – this time, in Italy: the aviation industry is not only having to contend with geopolitical struggles, but also faces an ongoing battle with Nature and Climate Change, in particular.

AI is pretty turbulent in creating images, too – spot the aircraft errors! – Source: ChatGPT

The image of a pair of feet hanging from an overhead locker, as plastered across the media following flight turbulence affecting an Air Europa flight between Madrid, Spain and Montevideo, Uruguay, last week, is not quickly forgotten. Following so soon on the heels (no pun intended) of the other very publicized Singapore Airlines’ incident towards the end of MAY24, it joins an increasing list of cases of severe turbulence in recent years – 5 serious ones alone in the past 5 weeks. IATA, which launched its IATA Turbulence Aware program back in 2018, to help airlines mitigate the impact of turbulence, also warns that turbulence incidents are on the rise: “Turbulence is a major safety concern. Each year, a significant number of people are injured by turbulence, while not wearing seatbelts. Cabin attendants are particularly at risk. Occasionally, turbulence events require an aircraft to divert, with all the inconvenience and associated costs that entails. Lacking accurate information to guide them, pilots may opt to minimize risk, but this can adversely impact fuel costs. With industry-wide sharing of actual occurrences, in real time, pilots could take appropriate action with confidence,” its website states.

Climate Change is the cause
The reason for increased turbulence is Climate Change – in more ways than one. In short: warmer temperatures are causing jet streams (fast-flowing, narrow air currents in the atmosphere) to become stronger and more erratic, increasing the frequency and severity of turbulence. Also, the more intense and varied temperatures of the Earth’s surface due to climate change, is pushing up temperature gradients and thus resulting in thermal currents, more unstable air masses, and thermal turbulence. Higher temperatures are raising the energy in the atmosphere, leading to greater instability and more convective activity, such as thunderstorms – another major source of turbulence. What is known as Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) – turbulence, which occurs in clear skies and is not visible to pilots or detectable by onboard radar – is also becoming more common. It is caused when bodies of air moving at widely different speeds, meet. This is the most problematic kind of turbulence as it can mean sudden, unexpected, and significant stress on the airframe of a plane.

Cargo at risk, too
Whereas most of the articles around turbulence in aviation focus on the comfort and safety of passengers and crew, cargo too, in its many forms, prefers to be neither shaken nor stirred. Turbulence is a safety risk on the cargo decks also, since it can cause cargo to shift, potentially leading to damage or loss of goods – particularly if the cargo is improperly secured to begin with. It can then become a serious flight safety issue. Temperature-sensitive commodities such as pharmaceuticals and perishables which need stable temperature conditions, can become compromised if turbulence ends up negatively affecting the cargo hold environment. These vulnerable goods as well as live animals and other fragile or sensitive cargo that is particularly vulnerable to damage during turbulence, require adequate protective transport solutions. More robust packaging can potentially result in increased packaging costs and overall cargo weight.

In the air…
Not just wind and weather pose a threat to flight, but most recently again, the fall-out from active volcanos. Just this week, the eruptions of the Mount Etna and Stromboli volcanoes have led to extensive airspace closures over Italy, because of their dangerous ash clouds. These pose a hazard to aircraft engines and must therefore be circumvented, resulting in flight delays and cancellations. The knock-on effect is, of course, a significant delay in the delivery of goods booked on the respective affected flights.

Coming back to Climate Change, rising temperatures impact an aircraft’s performance, reducing its lift and engine efficiency. This can mean having to impose weight restrictions and alter fuel consumption patterns, limiting cargo capacity and increasing costs.

And on the ground…
Airport infrastructure, including runways and storage facilities, also faces greater stress and more frequent maintenance needs due to rising temperatures. And what if the airport you are looking to take-off from or land on, is flooded or partially destroyed due to excessive rainfall? There have been several incidents of flooded airports in recent months. Unfortunately, over in India, this year also saw heavy rainfall that led to the collapse of airport roofs – in Assam’s Guwahati Airport back in MAR24, and recently at Terminal 1 of India’s busiest airport, in Delhi – tragically claiming a human life at the same time.

Increased costs, all round
All these operational disruptions mean that pilots may need to alter flight paths and routes, hence resulting in longer flight times and delays. These can disrupt tight delivery schedules and affect the entire supply chain. Added to the inconvenience to customers, flight reroutes also have a negative impact, financially and environmentally, on the operator. Longer routes mean higher fuel consumption, more emissions, and increased operational costs for air cargo carriers. Another effect relating in particular to turbulence, is faster wear and tear of the aircraft. This can result in increased maintenance requirements and costs. Turbulence-related damage may also require additional cargo handling and inspection at the destination, causing further delays in delivery. And the follow-on from increased damage, is the financial fall-out: On the one hand, higher insurance premiums for air cargo shipments due to the increased risk of turbulence, which impacts the overall cost of air cargo services. And on the other hand, damaged goods result in compensation claims from customers. These further increase an operator’s costs and potentially harm the reputation of the air cargo carrier.

Challenges need solutions
Turbulence and other natural factors present a number of challenges for air cargo: from safety risks and operational disruptions to economic impacts and logistical difficulties. Addressing these challenges requires a combination of advanced technology, improved operational practices, and robust safety measures to ensure the safe and efficient transportation of goods. And above all, strategic planning with foresight.

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