Why cold winter weather cancels roughly 60,000 flights a year in the US

  • Each year, cold winter
    leads to 60,000
    flight cancellations
    in the United States, costing airlines and
    airports an
    estimated $3 billion.
  • But
    freezing cold temperatures
    aren’t a problem for planes, which
    excel in cold, dense air.
  • The real problems happen before planes
    even leave the ground — clearing snow and ice off of runways and
    planes can create major delays.

Following is a transcript of the video:

Each year, about 60,000 flights get canceled because of bad
winter weather, which costs airlines and airports an estimated $3
billion. But it’s not the freezing cold temperatures that cause
problems for planes. After all, commercial jets fly 10 kilometers
up, where temperatures hover around -50 degrees Celsius.

In fact, planes excel in cold weather, since cold air is denser
and leads to better thrust. So clearly, the real problem isn’t
what’s going on up there. It’s what happens on the ground.

When a nasty polar vortex struck the Midwestern US in January
2019, temperatures dropped to -40 degrees Celsius and airline
canceled 3,000 flights nationwide. In these situations, when
temperatures start dropping, everything slows down. Cargo doors can
freeze up, along with the nozzles that pump fuel into planes, which
delays the refueling process.

Even the plane itself can freeze over. Just a quarter-inch-thick
layer of ice on a plane can disrupt the way air flows over its

Les Westbrooks: “So the number one reason I
would say that the reason flights get delayed in cold weather is
going to be because there’s some kind of frozen precipitation, from
frost to snow to a sheet of ice, adhering to the aircraft, adhering
to the wings of the aircraft particularly. “

That’s Les Westbrooks, a retired airline pilot and an associate
professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical
University. He says that typically, these planes are “de-iced” —
but this also delays takeoff. The crew can spray the plane with a
special hot water/glycol mixture. It can take around 40 minutes to
de-ice large passenger airplanes, so planes often have to wait
“their turn” for the de-icing station, which can also trigger major

And ice on the runway creates another set of issues. In 2014, a
plane at JFK skidded off an icy runway and into a mound of snow,
leading to an hours-long shut down at the airport. And even though
crews can remove ice from the runway, scraping it off the pavement
can lead to potholes and other imperfections, which makes takeoffs
and landings more dangerous.

And of course, snow and freezing rain on the ground can affect
visibility to the point where officials may decide it’s not safe to
fly at all. But if ice and snow aren’t the problem in these
extremely cold temperatures, it’s usually another factor:

Les Westbrooks: “The airplane flies fine at
high altitudes, -60 degrees. It’s made to do that. Humans are not
made to be outside in -60 degrees weather. And so the human factor
becomes a big, big factor, when it becomes extremely cold.”

Baggage handlers, aircraft fuelers, and mechanics all have to
stay warm. Some airports, like O’Hare in Chicago, set up heated
shelters for its employees. Of course, with all these breaks to
stay warm, not as much gets done, which leads to even more delays
and cancellations. Passengers start missing their connecting
flights, and that, along with passengers who can’t make it to the
airport due to bad road conditions, leads to half-empty planes.

In fact, many airlines might preemptively cancel flights before
bad weather even hits. Because it’s simply not worth it to fly with
so few passengers. So, in the end, you can still blame cold weather
for cancelling your flight. But unfortunately, it’s out of our
control. All you can do is stay home, bundled up with a mug of hot

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Source: FS – All-Travel destinations-News
Why cold winter weather cancels roughly 60,000 flights a year in the US