Last updated: 01:00 PM ET, Tue February 23 2016

Will Climate Change Impact Your Flight Times?

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | February 23, 2016

Will Climate Change Impact Your Flight Times?

Photo courtesy of NATS

Is global warming’s effect on the jet stream altering commercial aircraft flight times?

The jet stream is essentially a concentrated river of fast-moving air, active at altitudes ranging from 20,000 to 50,000 feet. Commercial jets typically cruise at 33,000 to 41,000 feet. The concentrated wind blows from west to east in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, either pushing or slowing airline flights every single day.

One new study says the jet stream speed will have an even stronger impact, with the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Scientists at the University of Reading recently discovered that the global warming trend is likely to speed up the jet stream, and could significantly impact the length of airline flights.

READ MORE: Caribbean Officials Outline Climate Change's Growing Threat to The Region

According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, an increase in the speed of the jet stream will likely make westbound flights take even longer, because they will have to fight increased headwinds. Eastbound flights will get much shorter, as they’re pushed by the prevailing west to east winds. For the study, climate data was fed into weather forecasting models, and the results showed that the doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause an average fifteen percent increase in the winds aloft.

On official schedules, British Airways flights from New York JFK to London Heathrow takes about 6 hours and 50 minutes. However, according to Internet flight tracking resource FlightAware, the actual average flight length is about an hour less than that. This is due to what is known as “schedule padding,” which is when airlines add extra time to the schedule of a flight, to protect against official delays. In January 2015, the fastest-ever non-Concorde flight from JFK to Heathrow made the crossing in just 5 hours and 16 minutes, aided by the jet stream.

Returning to the U.S., westbound flights fly into the wind, so they take longer to cover the same distance —up to an hour! Heathrow to JFK flights are blocked at about eight hours, but actually take 7 hours and 25 minutes. Dr. Kristopher Karnauskas, from the University of Colorado, Boulder calls the relationship between climate and air travel a “two-way relationship” for the way the winds benefit you in one direction, but not the other.

READ MORE: Study Discovers Feedback Loop Between Air Travel, Climate Change

Depending on how much you actually like flying, this news can either be good or bad. If you love air travel, or have a super plush Business or First Class seat, you may not want your flight shortened. You want to take advantage of every offering and amenity, so a shorter trip may leave you feeling that you missed out on something. But back in those tight coach seats, everyone would likely welcome a shorter flight.

Analysts also suggest the longer flight times could cause ticket prices to go up, because the flights will require more fuel to operate. This is purely speculative, however, as the biggest driver of airfare prices will continue to be supply and demand.


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