When aviation safety is at issue, silence is anything but golden. In recent years airlines and civil aviation authorities have developed reporting systems to speed the flow of critical safety information among pilots, mechanics, airlines and regulators. The motto of all those efforts is straightforward: ‘See Something, Say Something.’
Absent from the process, at least formally, are airline passengers, the people upon whom the health of the industry ultimately pivots. In this post-9/11 society we live in security officials encourage flyers to report anything that looks out of the ordinary be it person or package. But the industry is all but mum when it comes to speaking up when something mechanical or weather-related looks strange.
“They haven’t taken it to the next step,” says
former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Member John Goglia, “which would be [creating] a process by which passenger information would also be plugged in.”
Goglia says he understands airlines could get “a lot of passenger comments that mean nothing. But…every once and a while you’re going to get a comment that has significance to it.”
Once, as a cabin crewmember on a flight awaiting departure from the wintry U.S. city of Denver, Colorado, Sara Nelson, now international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, responded to a passenger’s call button. “He said he thought he saw some ice build up on the wing,” she remembers. She took a look out the window and headed for the flight deck. “The first officer (co-pilot) came back… and, indeed, there was concern.” The aircraft was de-iced again.
Goglia recounts a somewhat similar scenario when he was on an aircraft awaiting takeoff from the snowy Midwestern city Indianapolis, Indiana in the U.S.: “I was sitting over the wing and saw the snow build up pretty good and could see where it was at the point that it was [concerning]. I actually got up. I was in a window seat. So I climbed over two people and…and was making my way towards the cockpit when one of the pilots came back. And I said, ‘I was just coming up and let the flight attendant know you need to go back and be de-iced.’”
The pilot responded, ‘I was coming back to look. Thanks.’”
The aircraft took an hour’s delay while ground crews de-iced it.
But oft-times passengers don’t speak up.
Hell Over Hawaii
April 28, 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 is 24,000 feet above the Pacific en route from the U.S. city of Hilo, Hawaii to Honolulu when the unthinkable happens: explosive decompression rips 18 feet of fuselage from the top of the 737-200. Ninety-five souls are on board. One of them, a flight attendant, is swept overboard to her death.
The craft makes a miraculous emergency landing at Maui. No one else dies.
The United States National Transportation Safety Board says the probable cause was Aloha’s failure “to detect the presence of significant [structural] disbanding and fatigue.”
In the wake of Flight 243, this revelation emerges: “After the accident, a passenger stated that as she was boarding the airplane through the jet bridge at Hilo, she observed a longitudinal fuselage crack,” says the accident report. That crack lurked in an upper row of rivets, along what’s called a lap joint, about half way between the cabin door and the edge of the jet bridge hood. The report notes, “She made no mention of the observation to the airline ground personnel or flight crew.”
Why Passengers Don’t Speak Up
Marc Berman is a 100,000-mile frequent flyer, CEO and managing partner of The Mallett Group, a U.S.-based loyalty and relationship marketing firm. What makes his insights particularly penetrating, however, is that as a licensed independent clinical social worker he has a grounding in psychology.
Berman believes passengers often don’t speak up when they spot something unusual because many of them “have become very passive and don not question an airline’s [safe] operations.” Ironically, this passivity is pegged to the industry’s “fantastic safety records. People put their faith [in the airline]. I think there’s some denial there. Everyone wants to believe they’re going to be okay.”
That warm, fuzzy blanket believes Berman is ripped apart only when “an egregious sort of problem…makes someone speak up.”
BA’s Close Call
May 24, 2013, London Heathrow International. A British Airways A319 with 80 souls on board is taking off on a flight to Oslo when the cowl doors covering both engines are wrenched from the twin-engine Airbus. According to a recently-released report by the United Kingdom’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), the crew turned back to LHR. On approach to Runway 27R leaking fuel from a damaged fuel pipe on the starboard, or right side, engine ignited.
Here’s where passenger input comes into play. According to the AAIB report, “Several passengers reported that they had attempted to inform a member of cabin crew about the leaking fluid from the right engine. It is unclear when or how the passengers attempted to draw this to the attention of the cabin crew, or indeed which cabin crew member(s) were involved, but it is evident from photographs and passenger reports that the fuel leak was clearly visible through the cabin windows. Despite these cues, information regarding the fuel leak was not assimilated by the cabin crew and not passed to the flight crew as required by the operator’s SOPs (standard operating procedures).
“Information not acquired cannot be passed onto the decision maker and the pilots remained unaware of the fuel leak until the ECAM (Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor) fuel imbalance alert was triggered. Had the flight crew been made aware of the fluid leak from the right engine at an earlier stage, they might have been able to identify the fuel leak more quickly and could have taken appropriate action to mitigate the severity of the event.
“The operator (British Airways) has…a procedure for cabin crew to report cabin emergencies to the flight crew and provides new entrant cabin crew with basic aircraft knowledge in accordance with EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) practices. However, on this occasion, the training and procedure were unsuccessful in ensuring that vital information on the state of the aircraft was acquired by the cabin crew and made available to the commander.”
Thanks to some superb airmanship on the part of the cockpit crew the Airbus landed safely back at Heathrow. No one died; there were no injuries.
In the wake of the incident, Air Accidents Investigation Branch recommended British Airways amend its pilot and cabin crew “training, policies and procedures regarding in-flight damage assessments and reporting by cabin crew.”
Passenger Input In The Digital Age
One particularly pointed lesson learned from the BA incident is that in this digital age we inhabit potentially every passenger is a reporter, a chronicler of obvious, the outlandishly out-of-the-ordinary.
Peter Goelz is a prime position to know. He’s former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, and current senior vice president of the Boston-based crisis communications consulting firm O’Neill and Associates. “The world has changed dramatically, particularly over the last ten years,” he says. “The ubiquity of recording devices,” has altered the informal rules of the game when it comes to passenger input. Consider the BA incident and the photos passengers took of fuel erupting from the right side of the aircraft. “In terms of safety…that sort of crowd-sourcing puts considerable pressure on aircraft crewmembers to take these kind of inquiries seriously.”
Where once upon a time Goelz says the flight attendant might have simply said, “‘Ma’am (or sir), I understand. We’ll get to it. Everything is under control,’” now the passenger may have a digital photo or tape of the offending problem.
Goelz further argues since 9/11, “the whole issue of how you respond to passenger concerns has changed.” Passengers are encouraged to be part of the security effort by suspicious people or packages. Goelz sees scant difference between reporting potential safety issues and reporting suspected security lapses. “You don’t want people to sit on [potential safety information].” While conceding a sudden fountain of passenger-generated information could be a “pain in the neck” for airlines, the former NTSB official asserts something fundamental: Passengers “have a right to ask questions.”
Virtually all the experts AirlineRatings interviewed for this story agree that ‘See Something, Say Something’ needs to be something more than a slogan. AFA’s Sara Nelson says, “In terms of what we can do to get [passengers] engaged, perhaps the safety briefing, those initial safety instructions” about seat belts, oxygen masks and exit locations should add a more general admonition: ‘See Something, Say Something.’
Marc Berman contends the concept could be seen by particularly passive passengers as “permission” to speak up.
Permission or not, indications are we may well be entering a brave new era, one where it no longer pays for passengers to hold their tongues.
Sixty-seven out of seventy isn’t a bad score, unless it concerns the success rate in cracking airport security. That puts the data in a decidedly different light.
According to a report by the American Broadcasting Company, based on leaked data, that’s the number of times auditors dispatched by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were able to penetrate airport security: 67 times out of 70 tries. According to ABC, DHS was able to secret fake explosives and weapons through the system unnoticed some 96 percent of the time.
In the days that followed the ABC report we discovered gaps in the vetting of people who work at U.S. airports. According to a release from DHS’s Office of Inspector General, the OIG “identified 73 individuals with possible terrorism-related information that [were] not reported to TSA. TSA acknowledged that these individuals were cleared for access to secure airport areas despite representing a security threat.”
In prepared testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs DHS Inspector General John Roth said, “We believe there are vulnerabilities in TSA’s screening operations, caused by a combination of technology failures and human error.”
Even before Roth’s testimony, the Transportation Security Administration’s acting administrator, Melvin Carraway, was reassigned. He’d occupied one of the hottest of hot seats in Washington, DC. He’d been in the position just since January.
The leaked data, and resulting bureaucratic response, beg the question: just how concerned should airline passengers be?
“Every American should have reason to be concerned,” asserts Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a noted aviation consultancy. “TSA is a misfire. We need to shut it down and start a real security organization.”
Boyd believes any organization taking the place of TSA “should be accountable and they should be professional. These [airport screeners] in blue shirts are very, very nice people…the nicest people in the airport.” But, he goes on to maintain, “they’re not a security team. They’re there to look for pointy objects, not [spot] security failures.”
Then there’s this assessment: “We are not any safer than [before] 9/11.”
In the immediate wake of September 11, Kevin Mitchell says he did “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.” Mitchell is chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a U.S.-based consumer group. Some 15 years ago he called for a federal takeover of airport security. Now, he wants to give that job back to the airlines, with some stringent upgrades in standards. His reasoning? “The airlines are the entity with the most to lose, and therefore they should logically do it right this time.”
Mitchell says any such handover should be accompanied by high standards that an oversight body “would police the hell out of.”
He likens the resultant oversight to the model the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration now employs when it comes to aircraft maintenance. “The airlines do the maintenance, and they’re ultimately accountable.” Is it perfect? No. “But,” contends the BTC chief, it’s “far better a model than…TSA.” He maintains the Transportation Security Administration is “out of control. It does things for political reasons often instead of security reasons.”
So, is the sky really about to fall? Not at all, contends Jack Riley, vice president of the RAND Corporation’s national security division. RAND is a major international think tank.
Asked if he agrees with ABC News’ report, he answers, “Do I believe that we’re actually missing 67 out of 70…contraband [articles] coming through [security]? I think the answer to that is ‘no.’”
Riley says part of the security probing process, via which tests are carried out, “is artificial. The people conducting the test may know better than the average person about how to conceal something.” That, he asserts, “probably tends to over-inflate the failure rate.”
As for the portrait recent (and not so recent) revelations paint of TSA as a bumbling, lax organization populated by people who are neither well trained nor properly managed he counters, “That’s just patently not true.”
So, once again, how safe are we? Decently safe, believes Riley, even though he concedes there’s work still to do. The RAND security chief cites TSA’s layered approach to security as providing extra protection. “There are multiple other elements to defense the civil aviation system. It starts with locked cockpit doors that make it very difficult for a 9/11-style hijacking to occur again.”
Then there’s the legacy of United Flight 93 that frightful Tuesday morning a decade-and-a-half ago, when the 757’s passengers took matters into their own hands and tried to save the aircraft from hijackers. The notion now is “that if something like that occurs, everybody has a responsibility to put an end to the event,” says Riley.
There’s another level of protection: Federal Air Marshals. They travel incognito on many flights, especially international ones. Other even stealthier security exists too, layers passengers don’t notice, layers that remain intentionally invisible.
In Jack Riley’s estimation the revelations of the past couple of weeks are opportunities for TSA to transform itself. They “didn’t disagree with any of the [inspector general’s] findings. I think that’s a very important signal that they understand there were gaps.” That’s why he’s inclined to look at the present situation “as a learning moment rather than a moment of panic.”
Don’t look for this debate to end any time soon.
The words spoken by Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin were chilling. In the wake of the March 24 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, which killed all 150 on board, the French legal official says it appears First Officer Andreas Lubitz’s “intention [was] to destroy this plane,” by locking the captain out of the cockpit and commanding the aircraft to descend on a bee-line into the Alps.
If this proves out it may well mark at the fourth instance in the past 21 years that a commercial airline pilot has purportedly purposely crashed his aircraft. The toll for the four crashes (although some label a few of these occurences “accidents”) is 504 souls on board.
– November 29, 2013: LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470, with 33 on board, takes off from Maputo to Quatro de Fevereio Airport in Angola. The Embraer 190 regional jet crashes en route into a Namibian national park.
Although the weather was poor, a preliminary report by the Mozambican Civil Aviation Institute finds Captain Herminio do Santos Fernandes had (here’s that word again) a clear “intention” of crashing the aircraft, by changing the autopilot settings. More eerily, the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) discloses successive loud bangs as the first officer tries to break down the locked cockpit door.
– October 31, 1999: EgyptAir Flight 990, with 217 aboard, crashes some 60 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts on a nonstop flight from New York JFK to Cairo. All on board die when the 767-366ER plummets into the North Atlantic. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board rules the probable cause for the crash was “the airplane’s departure from normal cruise flight and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean as the result of the relief first officer’s (second co-pilot’s) control inputs. The reason for the first officer’s actions was not determined.”
No, but we do know that that the CVR recorded relief first officer, Gameel Al-Batouti, twice calling out “Tawkalt ala Allah” (“I rely on God”) before pulling back the craft’s power levers and pointing the nose of the big Boeing towards the chilly North Atlantic.
The captain had been in the lavatory, returning aghast to the cockpit to ask, “What’s happening?”
The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority, the (ECAA) didn’t agree with the NTSB’s conclusion. The ECAA pegged the crash to mechanical failure of the 767’s elevator system. The elevators are located on the horizontal stabilizers, on the tail of the aircraft. They control ascent and descent.
– December 19, 1997: SilkAir Flight 185. One-hundred-four souls are aboard the 737 as it lifts off from Jakarta, Indonesia. It crashes in a river in southern Sumatra.
Because the aircraft was built by Boeing, the U.S. NTSB participates in the investigation. It does not issue a probable cause, that’s up to the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee. But the NTSC was stumped. Because of inconclusive evidence it doesn’t determine the cause of the crash.
However, in a December 11, 2000 letter to the Indonesian NTSC the NTSB said, “The examination of all of the factual evidence is consistent with the conclusions that: 1) no airplane-related mechanical malfunctions or failures caused or contributed to the accident, and 2) the accident can be explained by intentional pilot action. Specifically, a) the accident airplane’s flight profile is consistent with sustained manual nose-down flight control inputs; b) the evidence suggests that the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) was intentionally disconnected; c) recovery of the airplane was possible but not attempted; and d) it is more likely that the nose-down flight control inputs were made by the captain than by the first officer.”
To this day, the cause of SilkAir 185’s demise remains controversial.
In the wake of an airline crash, authorities often perform so-called “psychological autopsies,” on the cockpit crew – especially if there are indications human factors are involved. Germanwings First Officer Andreas Lubitz’s life is coming in for minute scrutiny just now, this in an effort to determine why, if indeed that’s the case, he chose to lock that cockpit door and fly the A320 into the Alps.
Is there an effective way to cull out potential bad apples before they wreak havoc, a way that transcends the existing airline and regulatory scrutiny?
A noted former safety investigator once told this author that Aeroflot psychologists, back in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, used to examine crewmembers before each flight. The idea was to ferret out potential defectors, but psychologists were also out to determine who was fit to fly that day.
No one is suggesting that sort of approach today. The operational pace of today’s commercial airlines is just too fast, and the pilot’s unions might well object to the intrusiveness of such scrutiny.
But with a possible quartet of pilot murder-suicides in the past two decades it’s safe to say the problem is getting the industry’s attention as never before.
The lithium-ion battery battle is heating up, literally and figuratively. The issue: whether these controversial power-producers should be allowed to be carried, in bulk, in the bellies of passenger aircraft.
According to a story by the Associated Press two influential groups want the ban. One of them is the International Coordination Council of Aerospace Industry Associations (ICCAIA), which represents, among others, aircraft manufactures such as Boeing and Airbus. The other is the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA).
In a paper obtained by AP the ICCAIA contends the threat of lithium-ion battery fires poses “an unacceptable risk.”
Underpinning the call for a ban are tests conducted on lithium-ion rechargeable batteries in the spring of 2014 by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Fire Safety Branch. Results were dramatic. FAA was testing the effectiveness of cargo compartment fire-resistant (FRCs) containers and fire-containment covers (FCCs) in combatting large lithium battery fires. According to FAA, two FRC tests took place. Those containers were fitted with a dry powder fire suppression agent. According to an FAA document, “An explosion occurred inside the [container] during both tests. The overpressure and subsequent fire destroyed the FRCs in both of these tests.” The fire suppression agent didn’t discharge in the first test. It did in the second, but that made scant difference. “The discharge of suppression system did occur prior to the [second] explosion but did not prevent it,” says the document.
In perhaps the most chilling passage FAA says, “The cause of these explosions was ignition of flammable gasses that were vented by the batteries in thermal runaway that had collected within the FRC.”
The tests employed some 5,000 batteries.
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Communications Chief Anthony Philbin says, “The ban being proposed by IFALPA (the pilots’ group) is currently awaiting discussion at the ICAO Dangerous Goods Panel Working Group.” That body convenes April 27. Philbin notes, however, “subsequent recommendations…will still require Council review and adoption to be construed as an ‘ICAO position.’” In other words, this may take a while.
It’s important to note that Philbin says ICAO already “bans shipments of lithium metal batteries (author’s emphasis) on passenger aircraft.” These metal batteries power, among other things, cameras.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) banned shipment of lithium metal batteries back in in December 2004.
Where the regulations stand today
It’s the meaning of the term “bulk” that could play the pivotal role in deciding whether international regulators eventually end up prohibiting lithium-ion battery shipments in the cargo holds of passenger airliners.
There is already regulation of lithium-ion batteries stowed in the bellies of passenger aircraft. For airliners, the U.S. revised rule went into effect in August 2014. It focuses on proper packaging and labeling of the batteries, “harmonizing” the rule with stricter ICAO regulations.
The Rechargeable Battery Association, an industry lobbying group, supports those revised PHMSA rules, thinks harmonization is critical. “Dual standards create a fog of confusion that undermines compliance and enforcement efforts, says George Kerchner, the group’s executive director. “And reduced compliance jeopardizes safety.”
An outright ban, of course, is decidedly different than mere mitigation of risk via stricter packaging, handling and labeling procedures. In response to calls to prohibit bulk lithium-ion batteries altogether in the bellies of commercial passenger aircraft, Kerchner says his group “remains fully committed to the safe transport (author’s emphasis added) of lithium batteries.”
Therein lies the rub: how to effectively enforce rules already on the books. In a letter to ICAO’s Secretary General, Kerchner said recent “disregard” of regulations on the part of some battery manufacturers and distributors “was both revealing and worrisome.” Kerchner says some “who have their products shipped out of Hong Kong continue to offer their batteries for transport without complying with ICAO’s dangerous goods requirements.” More damning is his contention that “in many of these cases, circumstances suggest that they may have knowingly violated ICAO requirements.”
Yet another world aviation body, the International Air Transport Association wants governments to criminalize the shipping of dangerous goods. James Woodrow, who heads IATA’s Cargo Committee, is also chief of Cathay Pacific Cargo. He recently told delegates to the World Cargo Symposium in Shanghai, “Flagrant abuses of dangerous goods shipping regulations, which place aircraft safety at risk, must be criminalized.”
At the same time IATA, at least as of this writing, is not ready to endorse an outright ban of bulk shipments of lithium-ions on passenger aircraft. “We don’t believe that a total prohibition is the correct approach,” says Perry Flint, IATA’s head of corporate communications for The Americas. He says IATA has seen no incidents “involving correctly manufactured and properly compliant shipments.”
As the bureaucratic back and forth continues, some carriers have taken matters into their own hands, and unambiguously prohibited bulk shipments of the batteries on their aircraft. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are two of them. United spokesman Charles Hobart, citing safety concerns, says, “While the risk is minimal, United has chosen to eliminate this potential risk by no longer accepting or loading any bulk shipments of UN3480 lithium ion batteries.”
How many other airlines follow suit remains to be seen. That could become clearer as IACO prepares to tackle the topic.
None of this means you can’t still take that lithium-ion-powered computer of yours into the passenger cabin in your carry-on hand luggage. However, you can’t pack any lithium-powered devices, including laptops, in a checked bag. As for spare lithium-ion batteries, they’re also limited to carry-on only, and they should be individually protected from short-circuits by taping the terminals or putting them in a sealable plastic bag.
There’s a lot we don’t know yet about AirAsia Flight 8501. What we do know is that there’s a convective weather connection: thunderstorms are becoming nastier and more numerous.
Something’s happening here, and what it is is increasingly clear: the climate of this fragile blue orb we cling to is changing, mutating much faster than many had imagined. By the end of the 21st Century, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates Earth’s average temperature will balloon by 2.8 degrees C. The fate of the Polar Bear aside for a moment, that’s going to affect the way we fly.
Best buckle up.
“Rising concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gasses are changing our climate,” says Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. Implications are “far reaching, and in some instances, immediate.” Already impacted by wild weather, according to the WMO’s report The Global Climate 2001 – 2010, A Decade of Extremes are places such as Eastern Europe, India, Africa and Australia. Down under, they hold the distinction of being blasted by drought and swept by floods during the same decade.
How will all of this play out for airlines, airports and the flyers that depend upon them? “I’d be very cautious about any detailed [metric] modeling of these sorts of changes,” says Dr. Michael Bennett, a teacher and researcher at the Centre for Aviation Transport and the Environment in the United Kingdom. “The only thing we can predict is there are going to be some nasty surprises out there.”
Surprises such as stronger and more frequent thunderstorms, the kind that trigger seat-gripping turbulence.
Storms, Turbulence and Weird Winds
According to the study The Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate Events on Aviation penned by Idowu Innocent Abbas, James Kayode Ojo and P.A. Igbru and presented in Nigeria in 2009, 777 people died between 1979 and 2005 worldwide in commercial aviation accidents associated in some fashion with thunderstorm turbulence.
Expect such storms to “become more frequent and more violent,” says Bennett. “There’s more energy there; there’s more latent heat.” So, should you order a second Scotch and water and cinch your seatbelt a bit tighter for the ride ahead? He says with improved technology “We should be able to predict, detect and avoid [storm-triggered] turbulence,” but cautions such avoidance “comes at a cost.” Aircraft have to fly farther in order to circumnavigate bad weather.
Looking out his window of the World Meteorological Organization headquarters in Geneva at the parking lot that holds his hail-dented car, Dr. Herbert Peumpel says unexpectedly stormy weather is already a fait accompli on the European continent. “Geneva is not known for hail storms,” muses the WMO’s aeronautical chief. But “probably the biggest [such storm] I’ve ever observed happened in in Geneva.” Switzerland has never been considered a hotbed of convective thunderstorm activity. That sort of thing is traditionally the province of places such as the U.S., Southeast Asia or the Brazilian rain forest. No longer.
As a result of all this convective weather, a report by the air traffic control entity Eurocontrol, Challenges of Growth 2013 – Climate Change Risk and Resilience, envisions “Disruption and delay” as well as “potential safety issues if frequency and severity increases” or the ability to predict dangerous weather declines.
Disruption and delay come in assorted flavors. Mess up the traditional west-to-east flow of the jet stream – the purveyor of cooler, milder weather to Europe – and bad things happen. Such interruptions allow “bad weather to persist for weeks,” says Herbert Peumpel. He links the interrupted flow to “melting of the Arctic ice sheets.”
Wretched weather need not be destructively convective to wreak havoc. Ironically, Eurocontrol says a warming world could spawn “snow-heavy weather events” in Europe. The rationale, again, is pegged to air flow. Because the North Atlantic and Artic are warming, there will be longer periods when whether patterns are blocked. That would prevent warmer weather from spreading across the continent, setting up a scenario of more snow. Frozen precipitation and on-time airline operations are mutually exclusive.
Then there’s the little matter of that tail wind you get hurtling across the Atlantic from New York to London. A diminished jet stream could lengthen the journey and cause airlines to rejigger schedules.
Zip, zap, zoom. As climate changes, weather wrenches around in fast fashion. Consider, Peumpel says during he late winter and early spring of 2013 the Hungarian Army was rescuing people stuck in snowdrifts on the flat highway linking Vienna and Budapest. Scant weeks later the temperature had catapulted 30 degrees Celsius. “The extremes are changing more rapidly,” he says, and those extremes are “lasting longer.”
Superstorm Sandy played hell along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in October 2012, and airports were not immune. A gradually rising sea and surging tides coupled calamitously to flood portions of New York LaGuardia Airport. Waters from Flushing Bay lapped at the tarmac. New York Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International were less severely hit.
This could be a mere foretaste of what’s to come. In the report Climate Variability and Change with Implications for Transportation, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists a number of airports in the United States that could be in harm’s way. Among them are Louis Armstrong New Orleans International, San Francisco International, Reagan Washington National, and Boston Logan. Interestingly, New York LaGuardia was ostensibly best positioned among all these airports to withstand storm surge. It sits some 22 feet, or 6.7 m, above mean sea level.
Dr. Bennett says the immediate threat is not so much from sea level rise per se as from storm surge. “Let’s be clear, sea level rise is a gradual process. Over the last ten years we’ve been looking at about three millimeters per year.” Bennett believes this could add up to an increase of some “six inches by mid-century, perhaps more than that.”
But couple that rise with walls of water emanating from storms such as Sandy and the equation suddenly becomes soggy. He says together storm surge and sea level rise pose a real problem at “about 150 airports [airports] worldwide. “
By mid-century, such “storms will become more intense,” asserts the WMO’s Peumpel. They derive their punch from the energy extant in the atmosphere – and the best storage medium for that energy is atmospheric moisture, moisture stemming from what Peumpel says are “increased sea surface temperatures.”
Especially vulnerable are airports built on artificial islands, airports such as Osaka’s Kansai International. At KIX, Peumpel says, “there’s the problem of [ground] subsidence.” In short, the airport is sinking, even as the seas rise.
Europe has its share of low-lying airports. Consider Amsterdam. Schiphol rests 11 feet below sea level. In its report, Eurocontrol asserts one implication is “loss of airport availability” at more than 30 “at risk” European aerodromes. Echoing Bennett and Peumpel, the report cautions, “the impacts of sea-level rise [affecting Europe] are expected to be experienced over the longer term.” More ominously, “the impacts of an increase in storm surges may be more immediate.”
Immediate, as in right now.
You don’t have to fly out of a seaside airport for climate change to spoil your day. Just ask flyers who frequent Phoenix Sky Harbor International, a major hub for US Airways and a busy “focus city” for Southwest Airlines.
How Heat Affects Aircraft Performance
This past summer was a scorcher in the aptly-named Valley of the Sun in the Southwestern U.S., so much so that on a deadening 119 F-degree summer day US Airways had to ax 18 flights out of PHX. It was simply too hot to fly.
Here’s why. Warm air is less dense than cooler air. As the temperature rises, molecules of air spread out. That results in less lift, and longer takeoff rolls. The wings just can’t get the bite out of the air they need to produce sufficient lift.
“The length of a takeoff run is directly proportional to the absolute temperature of the air,” says Michael Bennett. Via this “density effect” for every three-degree increase in temperature you need a one percent increase in runway length. Most of the time, a few additional “tens of meters” will do the trick. But when temperatures soar to the significant triple-digits it could be “your existing runway is simply not long enough.”
Assuming the flying machine lifts off at all, its ability to climb can be radically reduced. If there are mountains around, as there are in the hot, western reaches of the U.S., watch out. The density effect is universal. As the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand puts it, “Rate-of-climb and angle-of-climb are noticeably reduced, as is obstacle clearance after takeoff” when temperature and altitude rise.
And when mountain and airplane meet, the latter is always the loser.
One way to operate in these kinds of temperatures is to limit the weight the aircraft has to carry. That may mean less fuel, equating to less range. A nonstop becomes a one-stop. Another option is to load-limit passengers and baggage. Either way, airline profit tumbles.
Performance degradation is just one issue. Bennett says the flashpoint for Jet A1 fuel is 100 degrees F, “which is fine in England. Normally, you could just throw a match into the tank and it wouldn’t burn.” Ah, but on a sizzling tarmac where the temperature is significantly higher it’s another matter. Temperatures such as those experienced in the desert Southwest of the United States, the Middle East, and other hot, arid areas can produce what Bennett calls “a highly flammable liquid.” While getting aircraft ready for flight is “doable” under such circumstances, “it just makes it more difficult.” You’ve got to be “very, very careful.”
He believes market forces may adjust automatically to increasing heat. “Clearly, this will affect European holiday-makers.” Will they continue to fly to the Greek Islands in August, “when [they] can hardly go outside…or fly in February of September, when it might be relatively pleasant?”
The World Meteorological Organization’s Herbert Peumpel says coping will become largely a matter of mitigation. No need to cancel a flight when you can adjust the schedule. It’s already happening. He says Middle Eastern airlines which fly regularly to hubs such as Dubai and Doha already hub after sunset. “If you look at their peak hours of operation, it’s nighttime. That may be the answer,” he says. “In areas that are getting extremely hot, you may have to switch mostly to nighttime operations.”
The old adage “everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it” is a tad shop-worn. We’ve all but conquered wind shear though pilot training, air- and ground-based detection. Infinitely more capable radar systems, as well as laser-based LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), have enabled us to ferret out weather dangers as never before.
We may not be able to avoid the weather extremes brought on by rapid climate change, but we can mitigate their impact. Airports can prepare for the shift of prevailing wind by building more crosswind runways. They can get for rising waters by elevating generators and electrical systems. Carriers can shift hot weather hub operations from day to night during the warmest times of year.
“We need to look [at] better mitigation and better planning so that we can handle a series of unusual events without a major breakdown,” says the WMO’s Herbert Peumpel. “I think aviation has always been extremely good at that.”
And it’s going to have to get even better yet before too terribly long.