As my husband drove me to the San Antonio airport in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning, streaks of lightning dappled the sky so regularly that I thought I was still dreaming. We pulled into the departure lanes to find a startling number of people curled up outside, asleep, while the baggage check line snaked through Terminal B with an intensity I’ve never seen so early in the morning. Normally, you’d expect the first flight of the morning to be packed with business travelers. Instead, these were haggard families, tired couples, and disheveled folks still wearing their work clothes. I didn’t think twice; with no luggage to check, I breezed through the TSA checkpoint.
It wasn’t until I boarded my flight to Dallas/Fort Worth that I found out what had happened. Ours was the first flight to the Texas hub in over 14 hours. Uncharacteristic tornadoes and severe thunderstorms had wracked the northern part of the state, grounding hundreds of planes and causing hundreds of others to be diverted. People had waited in American Airlines queues for hours trying to get rebooked on a different flight, or to get a refund, or to be directed to a hotel, or to just get a coupon for a compensated snack. When we arrived in Dallas, the crews that were supposed to have been delivered on a previous flight hadn’t made it, exacerbating an already difficult employee shortage. We sat our gate for a half an hour, waiting for an available gate agent to come open the door.
I’ve had my fair share of shitty flights and unexpected weather delays in my day, but the Dallas situation was especially concerning. Friends in the area said they lost count of how many tornadoes they either were warned about or had seen spiraling up in the clouds.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” one Dallas native said, shaking her head. “It totally disrupted DFW.”
“Same in Houston, too,” another Texan piped up. She’d had the misfortune of having a layover delayed there because of the weather.
And this isn’t anything new. “Unprecedented weather” has been the culprit of delays all year long as air travel recovers from its post-COVID slump. So, increasing numbers of severe storms in places that previously didn’t see that kind of weather, or rapidly spreading wildfires, or rising seas, or extreme heat can result in your flights being cancelled more frequently than you might be used to. We’re even likely to start facing more stringent weight regulations on flights because hotter weather means less dense air, which means planes need to be going faster to take off, which means we’ll end up shaving weight.
Or, as Airport Technology put it:
...The other half [of the changes to air travel], which tends to be less openly discussed, is adapting airports and the commercial aviation sector as a whole to the environmental consequences of climate change.
These impacts include a greater frequency of delayed and cancelled flights due to more severe weather conditions and changing wind patterns; damage to key airport infrastructure as a result of higher summer temperatures; and flooding of runways and taxiways from increased precipitation and the impact of sea-level rises, some degree of which looks inevitable at this point.
The article further states that it's difficult to prepare for or mitigate disaster when many of these weather patterns strike with little warning or evolve much differently than expected. And if things continue on this path, climate-related disruptions are going to be as regular a part of air travel as overpriced airport food.