When you’re 30,000 feet in the air, you may not realize that the jet stream surrounding you is pushing you along your route — saving time and fuel — or perhaps slowing your progress. The jet stream consists of high-altitude winds that generally flow east to west. That’s why flying from the U.S. to Europe is often faster than returning home.
How powerful is the jet stream? About a year ago, a Boeing 787-9 flying to London caught a 200 mph tailwind in the jet stream that pushed it to a speed of more than 800 miles per hour. The plane landed at Heathrow 48 minutes early.
The jet stream winds are created when cold air from the poles moves towards the equator, gradually sinking along the way, and warm air moves north to take it place, gradually rising as it does so.
But climate change is heating the poles faster than the equator, which is decreasing the temperature disparity between the two and messing up the jet stream.
On the ground, these changes can cause freezing cold and snow storms at airports that aren’t used to extreme weather. Up high, the unusual jet stream patterns are causing some challenging new conditions. The University of Reading predicts that by 2050, flights will experience 3 times more turbulence by 2050, which will lead to more inflight injuries.
Long haul flights are likely to get somewhat longer, as variations and intensity in the jet stream winds buffet planes and cause drag, slowing them down.
One way to avoid the rough air is to fly higher — which will result in more weight restrictions on airlines. That means less luggage allowance or even fewer passengers, which could lead to higher ticket prices.
But the big picture cost is potentially much worse than in-flight bruises and smaller suitcases.
Airplanes are already one of the world’s greatest producers of CO2, the most prevalent man-made greenhouse gas.
But experts say that if changes in the jet stream add an average of just one minute to each flight in the air, that could use up an additional 1 billion gallons of jet fuel every year — which would add more than 20 billion pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere.