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4 ways climate change could ground the airline industry

From infrastructure damage to new cost drivers, airports illustrate the ways climate risks could affect a business sector's day-to-day operations in a big way.

This summer, 222 million American passengers are expected to take to the skies — a record high, to say nothing of how many packets of peanuts that represents.

While business and leisure pursuits often necessitate air travel, those trips aren’t friendly to the skies. A proposed “endangerment finding” by the Environmental Protection Agency this month noted that carbon pollution from airplanes creates risks to public health and welfare.

What’s more, aircraft emissions, the largest unregulated source of carbon pollution in the transportation sector, stand to jeopardize the health of the entire aviation industry.

In fact, airports and airlines are contributing to, and suffering from, a number of climate change impacts that could make oversold flights and checked baggage fees seem like a walk in the park:

1. Damaged airport runways

Heat or flooding can make airports inoperable. When temperatures soar toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit, tarmacs have been known to get soft and cause the wheels of planes to get stuck.

Making things worse, many airports are also in flat, coastal areas or in vulnerable floodplains where extreme storms can inundate runways.

2. Health issues for airport workers

High temperatures on the tarmac can lead to heat stress and other disorders associated with extreme working conditions. Concrete and asphalt turn into “heat islands” during hot weather, making airport employees especially vulnerable.

3. Flights stymied by bad weather

In 2014, the brutal winter in parts of the United States led to the highest number of flight cancellations in a quarter century. Tens of thousands of travelers were stranded.

Expect more bad winter weather and inconvenience for passengers in the years ahead: Scientists say climate change likely will bring more and increasingly intensive storms to the northern United States, among other regions.

4. Rising costs amid more frequent storms

Not even large airport terminals can withstand extreme storms. The Lambert Airport in St. Louis was damaged twice by tornadoes in just two years.

Pushing for resilience

Indeed, you don’t have to look far for evidence of this climate-related aviation chaos in action.

“Hurricane Sandy caused the cancellation of nearly 20,000 flights in the New York area, cost the airline industry nearly $190 million in earnings and did $29 million in damage to federal air navigation systems,” Environmental Defense Fund Senior Attorney Pamela Campos noted.

These are expensive impacts borne not only by the airlines, but by the cities that own the airports, associated businesses and the public at large.

The airline industry has a vested interest in the fight against climate change. It’s in airlines’ own best interest — and in the best interest of the public they serve — to support tough limits on carbon pollution.

That puts the spotlight on the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Montreal-based agency that sets standards for the industry worldwide. It has pledged to finalize, by September 2016, a global market-based measure to cap and cut carbon pollution from international plane travel.

It’s time to get that solution ready for takeoff.

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Environmental Defense Fund

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