Coupling between air travel and climate Academic Article uri icon


  • The airline industry closely monitors the midlatitude jet stream for short-term planning of flight paths and arrival times. In addition to passenger safety and on-time metrics, this is due to the acute sensitivity of airline profits to fuel cost. US carriers spent US$47 billion on jet fuel in 2011, compared with a total industry operating revenue of US$192 billion. Beyond the timescale of synoptic weather, the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Arctic Oscillation (AO) and other modes of variability modulate the strength and position of the Aleutian low and Pacific high on interannual timescales, which influence the tendency of the exit region of the midlatitude Pacific jet stream to extend, retract and meander poleward and equatorward(1-3). The impact of global aviation on climate change has been studied for decades owing to the radiative forcing of emitted greenhouse gases, contrails and other effects(4,5). The impact of climate variability on air travel, however, has only recently come into focus, primarily in terms of turbulence(6,7). Shifting attention to flight durations, here we show that 88% of the interannual variance in domestic flight times between Hawaii and the continental US is explained by a linear combination of ENSO and the AO. Further, we extend our analysis to CMIP5 model projections to explore potential feedbacks between anthropogenic climate change and air travel.

publication date

  • December 2015