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Delhi’s dusty air puts plane engines at ‘serious risk’ of wear and tear, damage

Planes landing at Delhi’s main airport ingest large amounts of dust that can build up over time and put their engines at “serious” risk of wear and damage, a new study warns.

The unpeer-reviewed research suggests shifting more flights out of Indira Gandhi International Airport to night hours, which would cut engine particulate emissions by about a third.

“Dust and sand are dangerous for aircraft because the dust melts, forming glassy deposits on blades or hard mineral crusts inside engines. The crusts disrupt airflow and cause overheating, which causes accelerated engine wear,” said Claire Ryder, lead author of the study from the University of Reading in the UK.

“While the amount of dust inhaled during a flight is not huge, the amounts add up quickly. An aircraft that uses five grams of dust on arrival and departure will eat 10 kg of dust over 1,000 flights.”

Scientists analysed about two decades of satellite and atmospheric data to calculate the amount of dust inhaled by planes at some of the world’s busiest airports.

The study, the results of which will be published this week in the journal Natural hazards, reveals that the greatest amounts of dust are picked up by aircraft at airports located near the Sahara, as well as in the Middle East and northern India during dust storms.

“Mineral dust aerosol in the atmosphere poses a threat to aircraft engines due to the deterioration of their internal components,” scientists warn.

Planes landing in Delhi in summer pick up the most dust, picking up an average of 6.6g per arrival and more than 4g per departure, according to the study. Next are flights landing in Niamey, Niger, with 4.7g per arrival, and Dubai with 4.3g.

Scientists also found that planes absorb more dust as they hover over airports waiting for permission to land.

Scientists say waiting 10 to 15 minutes to land at an altitude of one kilometre could result in inhaling more dust than during the plane’s take-off and ascent.

Planes line up to take off amid heavy air pollution at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, October 27, 2023. (AFP via Getty)

At Delhi airport in summer, being at 1 km altitude contributes 50 percent of total dust inhalation, researchers found. Moving landings in Delhi and Dubai to nighttime could reduce dust inhalation by engines by almost a third.

Scientists predict that climate change could make the world even dustier as temperatures rise and desert areas expand.

However, current climate models do not allow for a clear assessment of this issue because dust emissions depend on several factors, including rainfall, soil moisture, surface wind patterns and vegetation cover.