Flying in winter is something we all do all the time, but winter also presents some issues for flying as well as for airports.
Yet, winter weather does not always mean your plane will be canceled, nor does it necessarily affect the aerodynamics of a plane.
You may have seen that the weather predicts snow on the day you are going to fly.
Or, perhaps, you are simply interested in how the cold and snow can affect the aerodynamics of a commercial airplane.
Or, if planes are even allowed to fly in snow for insurance reasons.
These questions can be answered easily by surveying the plethora of information available to us from actual pilots.
Let’s explore this question together in the following guide.
Can An Airplane Fly When It Is Snowing?
The easy and simple answer to this is, obviously, yes.
Commercial planes often cruise around at an altitude of 10 km and planes can even reach 12 km.
When at this level of altitude the general temperature can be as low as -76 degrees Fahrenheit.
So planes are already designed to withstand extremely cold temperatures.
As planes can already withstand pretty cold temperatures, then snow won’t have much of an effect on the plane.
Considering snow is flakes of ice that are suspended in the air, it won’t have a large effect on the plane at all.
Although, perhaps the most important thing regarding snow, is that you will almost never see snow when you are at a cruising altitude.
It is worth noting that snow only occurs around 4-5 km below the airs surface, so at the altitudes planes are flying at, snow is almost never an issue.
One risk is that icing can occur. Technically, when the individual components of the plane are overly cold and wet they can be iced.
When these components are iced the aerodynamics of the plane will be greatly affected, this can affect the plane greatly, but many planes are equipped to protect themselves from de-icing.
What Is De-Icing?
De-icing is the process of eliminating or reducing any build up of ice on the wings, tail, etc., of aircraft.
This is done through spraying de-icing liquid onto the plane.
Often a lot of de-icing liquid is needed to cover the whole plane, for due diligence, and often in places where temperatures are really low such as Toronto or Reykjavik Airport, they will use hoses to de-ice the whole plane before take off.
Unfortunately, de-icing like this is only a temporary solution. So, cold weather can cause disruptions through the components freezing in cold weather.
Although, even in the worst situation this would probably not cause a flight to be canceled, although this could cause delays if the plane requires more and more de-icing.
The Extent Of Delays And Cancellations
First things first, your airline will do anything in its power to get a plane in the sky. Canceling a flight is truly their last resort.
As long as they aren’t putting their passengers in danger, a cancellation will be made as a last resort purely for the safety of the passengers and nothing else – how does cold weather affect this?
Firstly, some smaller airports that maybe aren’t used to heavy snow can often be grounded by the latter.
This is mainly because they do not have the facilities to de-ice their planes quickly and efficiently without wasting loads of money.
Your airplane could be grounded at a smaller airport like this, or even if a private jet is flying.
Moreover, even some larger airports can still struggle with snow as well as de-icing, it can often depend on the airports operations and ultimately their management of snow.
For example, Heathrow in London, even though it is a massive international airport, can often struggle with snow management for their own specific reasons.
The same goes for Gander Airport in Newfoundland Canada, which has struggled with snow since its creation.
Although some small airports that deal with snow regularly such as airports in Scandinavia, can be really good at managing their snow even when they may not have the best equipment at hand.
Another way snow can cause cancellation is to do with road blockages leading to passenger shortage.
If enough passengers decide not to travel to the airport because of snow then this could potentially lead the airport to cancel a flight due to lack of passengers.
More often than not your plane will not get canceled.
In cases of heavy snow, factors outside the airplane can affect a flight particularly to do with airport operations rather than the airplane’s aerodynamics or physics.
The likelihood is that de-icing could potentially cause delays if it is particularly bad or equipment is sparse, but shouldn’t cause too many delays.
It is important to remember that even though snow can slow down a plane or delay it, if you are being flown from one city to another within a country or region, it should not affect you too much.
Even if the airport itself struggles with snow, it doesn’t mean that your plane won’t fly.
However, if you are flying out of an airport that isn’t prepared for snow, or doesn’t have sufficient equipment to de-ice a plane, you could be in more trouble.
Some small airports get grounded when heavy snow causes planes to ice up and they can’t de-ice them in time.
When it comes to the physics and operation of an airplane, when at cruising altitude, the snow and cold will have almost no effect on the plane at all.
Airplanes cruise at an altitude higher than snow, where it is too cold for snow to even form. So snow has an airplane that is at a cruising altitude.
If it is currently snowing and you are worried about it affecting your flight, get in touch with your airline and they should be able to advise you on the likelihood of delays and cancellations and may even offer to move you onto a later flight.