Polar Vortex is Cause of My Canceled Flight

“Flights canceled by cold? Don’t airplanes fly in frigid temps?” 

The recent cold snap has many flying passengers flustered.  Canceled or delayed flights leads to a backlog of passengers that may never leave the gate.  But why?  Hasn’t modern aircraft technology overcome cold weather operations?  After all, modern commercial jets fly at altitudes where temperatures are far more extreme than our recent ground temps.  Airlines must realize that extreme temperatures in summer and winter are part of the normal operational tempo of their fleet.  Right?  Unfortunately, the answers are far more complicated than just the cold.  There is a myriad of reasons for delay and cancellation during cold weather operations, but at the end of the day, the final decision will always be based on safety and efficiency.      

Yes, commercial aircraft can withstand extreme cold.  In flight, their wings perform better aerodynamically in cold, dry air and engines operate more efficiently.  During winter months, aircraft at higher altitudes can take advantage of tailwinds associated with a lower Jetstream to shorten flight times.  Modern jets also have robust air conditioning systems that keep everyone warm while passengers stream movies on satellite Wi-Fi.  Engine bleed air and electrical systems provide heat to the flight control surfaces and sensors to prevent icing.  Flying aircraft thrive in high frigid altitudes.

The problem is not the aircraft in flight, it’s on the ground where problems begin to mount.  Aircraft engineers design airliners for safe and efficient, “flight.” Not to sit for long periods of time in freezing temps.  This is why airlines purchase the most efficient planes, to maximize yield during flight.  In fact, the only time an airline is making a profit is when aircraft are flying.  If an airline’s fleet is grounded, they hemorrhage money and lose precious consumer confidence.   

That said, the minute an airplane touches down at an unusually cold airport, that’s where the problems begin.  Just taxiing to the gate, the crews have to steer massive airplanes on icy ramps.  One misjudgment can have the plane taxiing into the snow with no reverse to get out.  Ground crews must be ready to deplane passengers, remove cargo and baggage, fuel the aircraft, perform short term repairs, and get the plane back in the air as quickly as possible in unbearable temps.  Also, cold weather operations are a huge undertaking for the airport authority.  Air traffic controllers must direct this delicate dance between aircraft, heavy equipment and personnel.  Runways must be cleared, taxiways swept and de-iced, all while airplanes take-off and land around the airport.  It is a dynamic environment that creates serious hazards to aircraft and people.  Consideration also has to be paid to which airport these aircraft are operating.  Fairbanks is far better prepared for cold weather operations than Atlanta.

FAA regulations also state that no commercial aircraft can depart with ice anywhere on it’s surface.  Why?  If ice forms on flight control surfaces it could decay the aerodynamic properties of the wing.  This could cause an aircraft to require a longer runway than calculated to take-off.  The plane could overshoot the runway.  Ice could also form on sensors and antennaes, which could give erroneous indications to flight crews.  All of this seriously jeopardizes the safe operation of an aircraft to depart the airport.

De-Icing is critical.  The process requires heated glycol to be sprayed on all aircraft surfaces before a plane can even leave the gate area. Then, if the aircraft is delayed getting to the runway before more ice forms, you may have to return to the gate for more de-icing, it is a huge undertaking.  Imagine trying to de-ice the fuselage and wings of an Airbus A380 that is bigger than an elementary school of ALL ice.  I can get frustrated scraping my car windows in these temps.

In the final analysis, airplanes are designed to operate efficiently at altitude and in the most extreme environments.  It’s only when you congregate a large number of planes that operate awkwardly on the ground, at airports that struggle with human factors, de-icing procedures, and keeping up with an aggressive flight schedule that trouble ensues.  Airlines should always defer to the side of safety, whether that be delaying, cancelling flights, or ceasing flight operations out of that airport.  Statistically, you are still safer flying, than actually driving to the airport.  And sometimes, the safest flight to your destination, is the one that never took off.             



About R. Eric Jones

R. Eric Jones, MS, FAA AMT, Com/Inst Pilot, AGI, is Professor of Aviation and Associate Dean in the College of Aviation, Science and Technology at Lewis University

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