Here's why cold and snow create major problems at airports

A massive storm slammed into the US East Coast this weekend, dumping several feet of snow on major cities from Washington, DC to New York.

The air-travel system going into and out of the region was effectively shut down while the white stuff was coming down.

But as everyone digs out, travel will resume. However, it won’t be without some challenges.

Commercial planes are no strangers to extreme cold. Above 37,000 feet, the air is far colder than it is on the ground. Low temperatures on their own don’t stop air travel.

So why does cold strike fear in the hearts of airport managers and travellers?

Because it creates conditions that slow down airport operations. Significantly.

Heavy snow can reduce visibility to the point where officials decide it’s unsafe to take off and land. Ice buildup on aircraft is especially dangerous. In his book, “Cockpit Confidential,” airline pilot and blogger Patrick Smith explains that even a quarter-inch-thick layer of ice on a plane can disrupt “the flow of air over and around a wing’s carefully sculpted contours, destroying lift.”

Lift, it goes without saying, is what enables aeroplanes to take off and fly.

Ice on the ground makes things tricky, too. Last year, New York’s JFK Airport was shut down for several hours when a Delta plane skidded off the runway into the snow. (No injuries were reported.)

The problem is that while planes can be de-iced (usually by spraying them with a mix of water and glycol alcohol), getting ice off a runway when the temperatures are low and there’s no sunshine is much harder.

“There’s hardly anything you can do,” Jack Gartner, who worked in operations at New York airports for over 30 years, told Business Insider. Especially since you don’t want to risk damaging the pavement on the runway. Potholes and other imperfections in the pavement make takeoff and landing less safe.

On top of the threat posed by ice, there’s the fact that cold weather slows down the work that has to be done on the tarmac. In conditions like these, workers at Minneapolis-St Paul use a buddy system, Operations Manager for Field Maintenance James Riley said. They don’t spend more than 20 minutes at a time outside a vehicle or shelter, and so they’re “not getting as much done.”

The equipment used to pump jet fuel can freeze, so refuelling planes gets tricky. That has slowed airline operations in the past.

Simply put, cold weather makes it harder, though not impossible, to do everything necessary to get a plane in the air or on the ground safely, and to make sure everyone involved remains safe as well.

Usually, that means flights are delayed. And when things get really bad, it means cancellations.

Fortunately, Winter Storm Jonas’ impact looks as if it will be short-lived. Temperatures are expected to rise over the course of the coming week, speeding up the melting of all that snow.

[And earlier version of this post was written by Alex Davies.]

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