Explainer: Luton Airport runway collapse shows airports are vulnerable to climate change

EasyJet planes are seen at Luton Airport, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, Luton, Britain May 1, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

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July 22 (Reuters) – The temporary disruption at London’s Luton Airport on Monday, when soaring temperatures caused a small section of the asphalt to lift, is an example of the challenges airports face in making their infrastructure resilient to climate change, experts say.

Below is an explanation of how airports around the world are coping with extreme heat and what may be needed to avoid future disruption in the event of another heat wave.


The Luton runway was closed for nearly two hours on Monday, prompting airlines to delay or divert flights as temperatures soared above 37C (98.6 Fahrenheit), adding to industry headaches in what has been a chaotic summer season in Europe. Read more

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A long-standing patch on a small section of the track – the equivalent of 0.2% of the total surface – became so hot that it peeled off and began to heave, a carrier said on Friday. word from the airport, adding that it was fixed in two hours.

It is built to the same specifications as others in Britain, adhering to industry safety standards and regulations, the spokesperson said.

“We continue to evaluate all options regarding the ongoing maintenance and long-term resilience of all of our infrastructure.”

The spokesperson did not comment on questions about when the track will be resurfaced, the type of asphalt used or any changes to the material.

The tracks are generally resurfaced every 10 to 15 years.

Experts say the airport, one of Britain’s busiest and used by budget airlines including Ryanair (RYA.I) and EasyJet (EZJ.L), could be more vulnerable to the heat because it is at a higher altitude than the others surrounding the capital: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

Luton’s Climate Change Adaptation Report published in November 2021 warned that one of the main risks was that high temperatures could damage infrastructure or affect operations.

The airport said that in the medium term it should ensure that all airfield resurfacing projects consider the impact of rising temperatures.


The surfacing materials used depend on local climate and conditions as well as other factors such as cost.

In the Middle East, airports are more likely to use more expensive concrete runways because they hold up well to extreme heat, said Greg White, director of the Airport Pavement Research Program at the Australian University of the Sunshine Coast.

In Britain and Australia, cheaper asphalt tracks are more common, he said, although they use different levels of stiffness depending on the local climate.

This means that in Australia, where summer temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) are not unprecedented, asphalt tracks do not melt like they did in Luton.

“It would only happen in Australia if Australia hit 50 degrees,” White said. “You need something that’s out of the norm. But it can also happen on the cold end. You’ll get different breakdowns, but it can happen in extreme cold if you have something that’s been engineered and engineered for much warmer weather.”

Luton could make its track more resistant to high temperature, but that would in turn make it more sensitive to extremely low temperature, White said.


Airports Council International (ACI), a group representing airports around the world, has announced that it will soon publish an airfield maintenance manual for members with a dedicated section on pavement management.

“This includes lists of likely causes of pavement damage, and some are weather-related,” an ACI spokesperson said.

Runway fixes are just one of the potential challenges airports face as temperatures rise, with others including planes requiring longer take-off distances and weight restrictions in hotter conditions.

As temperatures get warmer, planes need more time and more fuel to take off because warm air is thinner.

A Federal Aviation Administration study released in November 2021 showed that runways at eight or nine of the 30 busiest U.S. airports may need to be lengthened by at least 500 feet (152 meters) due to future temperature increases or heavier precipitation, which requires a greater braking distance. .

Rising sea levels and more powerful storms mean that many airport operators are also investing in measures such as higher runways, seawalls and better drainage systems to future-proof their property assets.

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Reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by David Shepardson and Paul Sandle in Farnborough, England; Editing by Josephine Mason and David Evans

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