/Could Air Travel Become an Early Casualty of Climate Change?

Could Air Travel Become an Early Casualty of Climate Change?

It may simply be a run of bad luck, but even though I don’t travel much, I’ve hit a series of weather-related travel delays. And some of them have been severe. LaGuardia remained open well after its normal midnight closing time Monday night as all NYC airports were shut to travel twice last evening. My plane was diverted to Bradley, Connecticut, where so many other planes had landed that we could not get a gate. It was touch and go as to whether we’d have to stay overnight. A colleague was stranded in DC because her flight was cancelled.

And LaGuardia was even more third world than it has ever been thanks to the construction.1 If you want to take a cab, unless you have so many bags you are using a SmartCart or are in a wheelchair, you now can’t get a cab at the terminal. You have to take a bus to a parking lot where they wait. The old cab ranks have been given over to Uber and Lyft. But that may not work so well either. As I waited an ungodly amount of time to get a taxi, a guy stormed over to try to join the queue of special situation types (who get cabs called over from the lot) because the Uber line had been shut.

But back to speculating about the future of air travel. I’d had a chat with a flight assistant seated next to me on another messed-up trip not long ago (this one among other things featured a passenger having a possible heart attack). I am pretty sure I was not so bold as to bring up the topic of climate change, but she firmly dismissed that air travel would be restricted to help save the planet: “You can’t tell people not to fly.”

I am now wondering if this problem might take care of itself if climate-change-induced increases in the severity and frequency of storms will partly take care of the problem on its own. There are certain times of year when flying is riskier (in terms of travel delays) than others, such as around major holidays, during the winter in the northern parts of the country, and during times of year when thunderstorms are frequent (in the Northeast, historically, in August).

But what happens to air travel if serious delays and cancellations become markedly more frequent? Business travelers provide only 12% of purchased tickets, but they are twice as profitable as personal buyers. Even though someone on a business trip can usually charge whatever adjustments he has to make to flight disruption, the flip side is if he misses a trip, he may miss a key meeting. And that’s before you get to stress and time wasted.

And that’s before factoring the impact of a consistent higher level of disruptions on airline costs and therefore pricing. Cancelled flights are a loss of capacity. Even though some of the passengers who were stranded will get seats that were empty, some who were starting trips may decide to cancel them. And there are other ways airlines lose revenue. I’ve happened to cancel my seat just after big weather events (one a hurricane, the other a big storm) and in each case, the carrier was so eager to get the seat it waived its usual $200 rebooking fee (meaning it was expecting to offer at least as much to induce already booked passengers to delay their travel).

And costs almost certainly go up: more fuel costs for planes circling or being diverted, needing to call in more ops center staff, overtime to flight personnel.

In other words, given how security theater has already made air travel more time consuming and less enjoyable, more and more uncertainty about whether you will actually get from Point A to Point B on something dimly resembling the original schedule is likely to lead a lot of people to become more stringent about whether they really need to make that trip and also consider more seriously driving (or where the routes are decent, using a train) rather than flying.


1 I never minded LaGuardia looking tired. LaGuardia is a short run from the city, and the gates are all very close to the drop offs and baggage claim. Great ease of access makes up for other sins. I don’t need an airport to look glam. I want to get in and out quickly.

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