Unpacked: The Polar Vortex


Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry.

As we shake off the cold of winter, truly one for the record books, we wondered if it was merely the winter of our discontent, or if there was something more fundamental happening with our climate. This matters to us because shifts in the weather or the climate can have significant impact on how we run our airline.

One great example is the polar vortex that descended through North America in January 2014, bringing frigid polar air throughout regions in Canada and the United States. Besides forcing us to stay indoors, the polar vortex significantly changed wind patterns, requiring airlines to plan new flight routes and even some unplanned stops along the way to load more fuel.

But was the polar vortex an anomaly or a harbinger of things to come?

Let’s start with what we know:

A polar vortex is a permanent jet stream that circles the North or South Pole. The northern jet stream acts like a fence, keeping low-pressure and very cold air up in the Arctic, where everyone who doesn’t own stock in a parka company, wants it, and high-pressure warm air around populated mid-latitude regions. Jet streams form when two masses of air meet that are at contrasting temperatures, causing the wind to flow along their boundary as a result of the pressure difference. The strength of the jet stream therefore depends on the size of the temperature difference between the pole and landmass – the closer the temperatures between the Arctic and the United States, for example, the closer the air pressures – which weakens the polar vortex.

And now the bad news:

The Arctic is heating faster than the rest of the planet as its sunlight-reflecting sea ice melts. With less temperature difference, and less pressure difference, the jet stream begins to slow and wobble, allowing the previously contained polar air to spill southward. This brings cold air, which we prefer to live in the Arctic, down towards North America.

Good for parka companies. Not good for airlines and the customers they serve.

So what are we doing about it?

JetBlue is taking a comprehensive approach to the challenges climate change poses to our airline, starting with ensuring our customers remain well-served. We are investing in new aircraft that have longer range, in order to reduce the number of fuel stops made necessary by changing winds. Our dispatchers and pilots collaborate on the most efficient routing, as well.

But the real solution lies in reducing our chances of encountering extreme weather, not just for our creature comfort but to contribute our part to the sustainability effort. Burning less fuel (by using more efficient aircraft and evolved operational practices), offsetting the carbon footprint of all JetBlue crewmember business travel, and making it easy for our customers to do the same are some of the ways we are trying to make a difference.

It’s our belief that the little things matter, whether it’s the experience you have on board or the little choices we make every day that can either help or hurt the environment.