Heat wave: How hot is too hot to fly?

This weekend's heat likely will not  heavily impact airport operations in Southern California. But it might be a problem in Phoenix, hub for US Airways

This weekend’s heat likely will not noticeably impact airport operations in Southern California. But it might be a problem at US Airways’ Phoenix hub.

It’s a warm weekend in Southern California. And it’s even hotter in Phoenix, where Saturday’s high should reach 119 degrees. 

Most frequent fliers know airplane performance is impacted when the temperature rises. That problem is further compounded at higher-elevation airports, like Mexico City, Denver and even Phoenix.

The basic idea is that the air becomes less dense as temperature and altitude increases. The lighter air means airplanes have more difficulty climbing. Often, airlines deal with the problem by making planes lighter — taking off cargo, bags and even passengers.

Jess Romo, airport manager at L.A./Ontario International Airport, where Saturday’s temperature is predicted to reach 103 degrees, told me operations there shouldn’t be impacted this weekend. The airport is located at around 975 feet above sea level — not considered high altitude by aviation standards.

“It would have to get pretty hot – in my opinion a temperature we’ve not seen – to have an impact,” Romo said in an email. “ Keep in mind that we get hot weather every summer. It’s just that we are getting an early dose.”

But it could be a different story in Phoenix, which is hotter and slightly higher than L.A.-area airports.

US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher told the Associated Press the airline’s Boeing planes can fly in temperatures up to 126 degrees, while its Airbus fleet can fly in up to 127 degrees. Its fleet of regional jets require slightly cooler temperatures.

“The hotter is it, your performance is degraded,” Lehmacher told AP. “We’re monitoring this very closely to see what the temperatures do.”

In 1990, Phoenix temperatures hit 122 degrees and some airlines, including America West — which later became US Airways — had to stop flying for several hours, according to AP.

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  • Fuzzy Thinker

    The writers are hyper-ventilating again.

  • Phil Williamson

    The density altitude at 975′ MSL on a 126 degree day (using a standard 29.92) is 5262 feet.

    A jet should be able to do this fine. The Denver airport, for instance, is 5430′ MSL. I’d leave a non-turbocharge airplane alone, but with something like a Skylane Turbo RG…I’d have no problem with. Except for the misery the passengers might be in (no AC in most small airplanes) is the only reason I’d not fly.

    Keep in mind for every 1000 feet you go up, the temperature drops around 4.4 degrees. At 15,000′ AGL, you’d be a comfy 60 deg F. :-)

    I’m sure glad we can edit these posts. First time around, I posted 92.92 as the standard pressure!

    • Brian Sumers

      Thank you, Phil, for explaining this to us. It’s complicated stuff, at least for most.

      • Phil Williamson

        These calculations get pounded into your head during ground school as a student pilot. It’s been a long time (got my Private license back in 1970 while stationed at Ft. Gordon, Georgia) but you need them almost anytime you fly in strange conditions.

        The Jessica Dubroff crash was similar, high density attitude in a (somewhat) high performance aircraft… a Cessna 177. They were over loaded by 96 pounds and at 6159 feet MSL airport (Cheyenne Regional Airport).

        Not a good place for a “demonstration” of the fight performance of a C-177.