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Climate Change May Make Transatlantic Flights Longer, More Expensive

Climate change could impact transatlantic travel, making eastbound flights longer and costing airlines an extra $22 million per year in fuel.
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Climate change could impact transatlantic travel, making westbound flights longer and costing airlines an extra $22 million per year in fuel — which will likely lead to higher ticket prices for travelers.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters says that jet stream winds are likely to grow stronger, making it more difficult — and costly — for planes to make the westward journey. The good news, however, is that flights from the U.S. to Europe will be around 15 percent shorter.

Since the jet stream is governed by the temperature differences that occur at high altitudes between tropical and polar regions, a change in those temperatures could lead to an increase in jet stream flow.

All in all, the change in winds will only tack on an average of about a minute and 18 seconds to each individual round trip — but when multiplied by the many flights that make the trip every year, the fuel prices and environmental impact start to add up.

"There is a robust increase in the round-trip journey time, which means planes spending longer in the air," study author Dr. Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading, told the BBC. "When you add that up for all transatlantic aircraft you get an extra 2,000 hours of planes in the air every year, with $22 million extra in fuel costs and 70 million kg of CO2."

The study also noted that “record-breaking eastbound transatlantic crossing times […] will occur with increasing frequency in the coming decades. We also calculate that the probability of a westbound crossing taking over seven hours nearly doubles from 8.6 percent to 15.3 percent, suggesting that delayed arrivals in North America will become increasingly common.”

“The aviation industry is facing pressure to reduce its environmental impacts, but this study shows a new way in which aviation is itself susceptible to the effects of climate change,” Williams concluded in the study. “This effect will increase the fuel costs to airlines, potentially raising ticket prices, and it will worsen the environmental impacts of aviation.”

Read More: World Leaders in Paris Agree to 'Historic' Deal on Climate Change