Yikes! You May Have Noticed This Uncomfortable Truth About Flying in Summer Heat

Yikes! You May Have Noticed This Uncomfortable Truth About Flying in Summer Heat

Prepare for a bumpy ride, if you can take off.

By Karen Gardiner

As recent news out of Phoenix confirmed, extreme heat is not good for flying. While the Arizona city baked in temperatures hovering around 120 degrees, airlines were forced to cancel flights. American Airlines alone canceled 50 flights in and out of Phoenix.

According to a spokesperson, regional flights on American Eagle were the most affected, because they use Bombardier CRJ planes that can only operate at temperatures of 118 degrees or below, while larger Airbus and Boeing planes, able to operate at 127 and 126 degrees, respectively, were unaffected. 

The science behind the reason some planes can't take off in such heat was explained a few years ago by the pilot, blogger, and author of Cockpit Confidential Patrick Smith, who told Business Insider that hot air is less dense than cold, which "affects the output of the engines as well as aerodynamic capabilities, increasing the required runway distance and reducing climb performance." In other words, the planes need to go faster to achieve the required lift, and many airports lack the runway distance to reach such speeds.

But, as anyone can attest who has flown in to a city like Phoenix or Las Vegas during the heat of the summer — especially as climate change continues to boost temps — getting airborne is not the only challenge for airplanes during extreme heat. Flights into desert cities tend to experience increased turbulence and the culprits are what experts call the "thermals." At Plane and Pilot, Bill Cox explains:

"In summer, the primary offender is convection. As the high sun heats the ground, convective turbulence chops up the sky, forming thermal activity near the ground and potentially violent cumulus clouds at higher levels."

Nervous flyer? Try booking a flight that gets in early morning or late night, when it is cooler. The less the heating effect, the smoother the ride.

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