Long flights are getting longer, and you can blame climate change, study says

The World
Climate change makes flights longer

According to a study, there are about 300,000 commercial flights each day in the US.

Yuya Shino/Reuters

If you already don’t like flying, we have some bad news.

A new study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, says that long flights are getting longer. This is because the jet stream, the high-altitude winds from west to east, are becoming more unpredictable, and buffeting planes midair.

The paper attributes most of the seasonal irregularity to El Niño, the shift in distribution of warm water that can develop in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean around December. As the temperature of the Pacific Ocean around the equator rises and falls it sets off atmospheric waves that change circulation patterns.

Unfortunately, we’re in a seriously vicious cycle.

As strong winds bog down flights traveling from east to west, those planes are using more fuel, pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and causing even more severe weather and strong winds.

You might think that the strong winds pushing planes east cancel out the struggle flights face when traveling west, but that's not the case. According to the study, on average, for every 10 minutes saved by an eastbound flights, 11 minutes are added to a westbound one. While the difference per flight is relatively small, they add up — and fluctuate day by day.

“The wind really fluctuates by about 40 mph, so multiply those couple of minutes by each flight per day, by each carrier, by each route, and that residual adds up quickly,” Kris Karnauskas, the lead author on the study, said in a press release. “We’re talking millions of dollars in changes in fuel costs.”

Hannah Barkley, a doctoral student at MIT, brought the time difference to scientists’ attention after noticing her flight from Honolulu to the east coast took far less time than she was used to.

After digging through the data with Karnauskas, they found that the jet stream was particularly fast that day.

“It was just serendipitous, as if she was part of some kind of golden mileage club where the atmosphere just opens up for you,” said Karnauskas.

After realizing that there could be such a huge difference on certain days, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Wisconsin Madison began analyzing decades of flight data from four different airlines that fly from Honolulu to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

According to the study, there are about 30,000 commercial flights each day in the US. And according to the International Panel on Climate Change, the airline industry is responsible for about 3.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emission.

In a study published in 2013, also in Nature Climate Change, British scientists found that climate change also contributes to turbulence, which could lead to more passenger injuries, longer travel time and more expensive tickets.

Researchers hope that carriers can use this information to inform their flight paths, potentially saving billions of dollars each year in fuel costs, and — as a result — shaving 22 billion pounds of CO2 off the average emissions per year.

And at the very least, this information could come in handy when trying to catch a connecting flight.

“The airline industry keeps a close eye on the day-to-day weather patterns, but they don’t seem to be addressing cycles occurring over a year or longer,” Karnauskas says. “They never say ‘Dear customer, there’s an El Niño brewing, so we’ve lengthened your estimated flight duration by 30 minutes.’ I’ve never seen that.”

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