Air travel “is like a finely tuned Swiss watch, and when you have winter, you’re throwing sand in it,” he said John Nance, Former military and commercial pilot and aviation analyst for ABC News.
To better understand how winter storms affect flights, we spoke to aviation experts about some of the biggest mysteries surrounding snow and ice weather and flying.
Airplanes and ice don’t mix
During a winter storm, the biggest challenges are on the ground. Airplanes, like butterflies and cars, don’t like snow and ice on their wings or under their tires.
For airplanes to take off and land safely, their wheels must be stable. Pilots also need sufficient braking capacity to slow and stop the plane after it has landed.Without this capability, the aircraft could overrun or overshoot the runway because Southwest Airlines had tragedy in 2005. During a snowstorm in early December, a young boy was killed when the plane landed at Chicago’s Midway Airport and slid into a busy street.
“Freezing rain scares us, and it should,” Nance said. “The main concern is traction. If you have ice, you have nothing to grab.”
Airports are responsible for clearing runways, ramps, taxiways and sidewalks. Treatments depend on the type of precipitation: chemicals to thaw ice, for example, and plows to remove snow.
“Powder snow, slush, ice—there are different removal systems,” said Hassan Shahidi, the company’s president and CEO. flight safety foundation, a nonprofit advocate for air travel safety. “The airport uses special towing equipment to test the condition of the runway.”
If the airport cannot cope with snow or ice accumulation, the airport will have to close the runway or the entire facility.exist early februaryfor example, icing conditions force Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport off for a few hours. The airport eventually reopened one of its seven runways, hampering flight schedules across the country.
“It ripples through the system,” Bill Feist, a commercial pilot with more than 30 years of experience, said of the long-term impact of airport and runway closures.
An aircraft cannot take off if its wings are covered by a thin layer of snow, ice or frost, which interferes with the aircraft’s aerodynamics. “Ice and snow on the wings disrupt the airflow,” Nance said. “It changes the airflow over the wing.”
To melt the precipitation, planes must be deiced, a process that involves spraying a heated chemical mixture on the wings, tail, fuselage and windshield. Processing takes several minutes, plus waiting time for the de-icer, and must be done immediately before departure. If the plane is idling on the tarmac for too long, precipitation can accumulate again.
“There’s a 30-minute window after de-icing,” Shahidi said. “[A second round of de-icing] Happens once in a while. “
To simplify the process and reduce potential delays, many airports have installed deicing facilities. last month, Memphis International Airport unveils its joint de-icing facility, considered one of the largest airports in the world, with 12 commercial and cargo aircraft stands. “They were parked on the tarmac before takeoff,” Memphis International Airport spokesman Glenn Thomas said.
Memphis is a FedEx hub, which benefits passengers: The airport has 44 pieces of winter weather equipment like plows, salt spreaders and snowplows.
Why your flight might be delayed or canceled
When you see a “delayed” notice on your electronic boarding pass at the airport, or get a message from the carrier that your flight was canceled due to bad weather, you can sincerely thank the airline. The number one goal of an airline is to ensure the safety of its passengers.
“Airlines err on the side of safety and caution,” Nance said. “They don’t like taking risks.”
To do this, the airline consulted two main entities: Federal Aviation Administration and airport. Like professional advisors, the FAA doesn’t tell airlines what to do; its role is to relay information and share communications. “The FAA discourages airlines from delaying or canceling flights,” said Greg Byus, air traffic manager at the agency’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Warrenton, Va. “It’s up to each airline.”
One of the FAA’s main responsibilities is “managing capacity and demand,” Byus said, by dictating how many planes can take off and land in an hour. If severe weather impedes the flow of air traffic, the FAA may issue a ground stop (no planes can land at the affected airport) or a ground delay (few planes can land). In making these decisions, the agency works closely with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The ground stop and delay order applies only to departing planes, which could confuse passengers sitting at the gate watching planes taxi down the runway with their plane nowhere to be found.
“There are different restrictions on entry than on departure. Pilots need to see the runway,” Byus said.
Travelers departing from airports outside of the weather system may also wonder why they are not boarding. Explanation: The airline will detain the aircraft if there is a possibility that the aircraft will not land at the connecting or final destination. This maneuver will save pilots from having to fly around the airspace until it is safe to descend or divert to an alternate airport.
“Low ceilings, low visibility or heavy snow — airlines can’t send to that airport,” Byus said. “The pilot was unable to land.”
If an airline foresees a runway or airport closure, it may cancel flights pre-emptively. That could be the case this week: According to AccuWeather, the impending storm could affect two-thirds of U.S. flights. “There’s been a lot of proactive, preventative cancellations,” Nance said.
To ease the stress of the unknown, take advantage of waivers offered by airlines whenever possible and get out before the storm arrives.
“If I had to, I’d be up at 4am to get out before the storm hit at 9am,” he said jon ness, a meteorologist and assistant professor at Penn State University. “I’m a big believer in getting out before the storm hits.”
If you’re traveling after a storm, consider when roads and runways will clear. Winter storms in cities like Boston, Philadelphia or St. Louis typically last 12 to 24 hours, according to Nese. Storms stay longer at lake destinations — 24 to 36 hours, like Buffalo on Lake Erie.
How to Avoid Being Trapped This Winter
It may be too late for the holidays, but winter has just begun. If you’re planning a trip between now and spring, there are several steps you can take to minimize disruption.
Avoid connecting flights so you don’t have to deal with multiple takeoffs and landings and accumulated delays. If possible, choose airports that are well-equipped to handle winter weather and high volumes of passengers, such as New York’s Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare, LaGuardia, and JFK. Conversely, smaller airports with limited resources and infrequent snowfall tend to be less adept at dealing with the challenges of arctic weather.
“Denver has a really good snow removal program,” Beears said, “Buffalo prides itself on snow removal. Atlanta is closed.”
Consider booking a morning flight when the crew has just clocked in and the risk of their hours expiring is low. Plus, bad weather can cause a cascade of delays. To stay up to date with any changes to your flight, download the airline’s app. Nese also recommends using a radar app or following the National Weather Service to track the weather. “It doesn’t take rocket science to understand radar applications,” he said, warning: “They’re not predictive. They’re instantaneous.”
Winter storm clouds are not as high as thunderclouds, so pilots can easily soar above them, taking respite from the drama on the ground.
“You can easily fly through winter storms,” Ness said. “There could be a big snowstorm down there and you just don’t know it.”