The Physics Of Extreme Heat On Air Travel

Living in the metro Phoenix area I am used to hot. Not hot, like it-makes-you-sweaty hot. I mean HOT, like you-just-opened-a-pottery-kiln-and-are-singeing-off-your-eyebrows hot. You do get used to it after several years and you learn to adapt your schedule to do any activity at night. But the heat impacts more than your daily schedule. It can be brutal to your travel plans, too.

In cases of extreme heat, certain aircraft can’t take off. It was announced earlier this week that American Airlines canceled more than 40 flights out of my home airport of Sky Harbor International Airport due to the extreme temperatures in the forecast. When I received an alert for my AA travel, I did some research to find out why.

According to a statement from American Airlines, “The high temperatures during this specific time period may impact flight operations, specifically regional flights that operate on smaller aircraft.”

With an extreme heat warning from the National Weather Service, it make sense that certain flights would be canceled, especially when you consider that different types of aircraft have different specifications. According to my research, certain planes (used on regional flights for American Eagle (from American Airlines) have a maximum operating temperature of 118 degrees. Larger planes, like some Boeing bodies have a maximum operating temperature of 126 degrees and the Airbus aircraft top out at 127 degrees. Considering air temperatures are expected to be 119 and you factor in the extra heat emitting from the tarmac, no wonder certain planes are grounded!

The physics of it all are this – Extreme heat affects the density of the air, making it thinner. This means that a plane needs more air speed to take off and longer runways to use in order to gain velocity.

As per Heather Lissner, spokesperson from Sky Harbor, “Sky Harbor’s runways are able to accommodate planes taking off in hot weather.” She goes on the state that the airport can handle extreme heat as a result of a lessons learned during a record-setting 122 degrees back in 1990 and the resulting cancellations of flights due to the lack of airline performance charts for that kind of heat. Apparently, these days, airlines have performance charts with calculations up to about 122 degrees.

All that is interesting and I’m glad my flight was on a larger Airbus aircraft this week, but all I can think about is those poor ramp agents (folks that work the runway)! There is only so much that sunglasses and a hat can do when stuck out on pavement waving in planes during the daylight hours. Cheers to those plane marshellers who move the planes in all sorts of conditions.

Thanks for stopping by Java and Junket and if my science isn’t correct, please let me know in the comments!

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