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United CEO: Climate Change Means More Flight Cancellations

By Jake Beardslee · July 26, 2023

Extreme weather this summer has caused a surge in flight delays and cancellations.  JacobAviation, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

This summer has seen a run up in flight cancellations at airports across the country due to extreme weather conditions, including intense heat, heavy rain and thunderstorms. Since Memorial Day weekend, passengers have endured an unprecedented number of flight delays and cancellations, creating an unsettling new normal for a challenged travel industry.

Approximately 343,000 flights have been delayed so far this summer, accounting for nearly 26% of all flights.

In late June, thunderstorms wrecked havoc in major airports such as Newark and Denver, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers. United Airlines, the most affected of all major carriers, had to cance nearly one-third of its flights as the all-important summer travel season was just getting started.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby warns that frequent flight delays and cancellations due to extreme weather could become typical in the near term. “Irregular operations events are going to be more likely to occur as the climate warms [with] more heat in the atmosphere. Thermodynamics 101. We’re going to have more thunderstorms,” he said.

Atmospheric scientists note that in addition to thunderstorms, wind turbulence at high altitudes has increased markedly in severity over the past several decades. “It already happens 5,500 times each year and [is] projected to grow two to three times worse in the years to come,” Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading, told NBC News.

While airlines can warn pilots of turbulence ahead, thunderstorms remain the bigger threat. “The No. 1 cause of delays and cancellations is weather,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the growing incidence of severe weather events underscores the importance of airplane passengers remaining in their seats with seatbelts fastened. For example, 78% of the injuries sustained by flight attendants are turbulence related.

Light Wave commentary

The increasing flight disruptions and turbulence caused by extreme weather events underscore the growing reality of climate change. As the airline industry and its bottom line are impacted by the consequences of a warming planet, it will surely play an increasing role in advocating for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. For carriers like United Airlines, it’s not about woke capitalism. It’s about self-preservation.