Commercial Aircraft and Cold Temperatures

When frigid temperatures hit the north-central and north-eastern United States earlier this year, hundreds of flights were grounded or canceled due to the extreme weather. And that can make you wonder, what exactly makes cold weather so difficult for commercial flight? Just a hint, the problem is not what it seems.

Generally speaking, you might think cold weather involves an array of problems for an aircraft. From frost formation to snow accumulation, it seems like a total disaster for commercial flight. We will get to frost and snow, but, overall, aircraft are actually more efficient in lower temperatures. A colder temperature means less humidity and denser air. As a result, the aircraft engine is able to utilize a larger quantity of air/fuel mixture than it would at warmer temperatures. This process gives the aircraft engine parts more horsepower and allows it to take off and land more quickly. Often, this creates a smoother flight-feel and more efficient operation overall.

Aircraft also have numerous redundancy measures to ensure it stays heated at a proper temperature, and to ensure that frost does not form on the airframe, even in extremely cold weather. Components that have specific temperature requirements, such as fuel oil, hydraulic fluid, and internal combustion units, will have integrated systems to keep them heated; this might include preheaters or aircraft engine analyzers. As long as the aircraft is preheated and an aircraft engine preheating process is followed, the aircraft will have no problem maintaining its required temperatures for flight.

It’s critical to ensure that frost does not form on the airframe top of an aircraft. Even a small amount of frost can change the pattern of airflow over the aircraft surface, increasing drag and causing a multitude of other challenges. Most commercial airliners use antifreeze fluid to ensure this does not happen. A coat of the glycol-based fluid at the gate will ensure that frost does not form on the aircraft surface before it reaches higher altitudes. The airframe itself is built to withstand temperatures of around -40 to -70 ? while flying altitudes upwards of 30,000 ft. Due to vapor pressure in the air (vapor pressure dictates the formation of ice) frost cannot form at these altitudes.

Here’s the main issue for commercial flight— while aircraft are engineered to survive volatile conditions, cold weather is much harder on airport operations. There are no preheating methods for a frosted tarmac, nor for frozen jet fuel equipment. Despite the likelihood of hundreds of aircraft needing anti-icing treatment and jet fuel, an airport cannot keep ground operations workers outside for longer than 15 to 20 minutes at a time in frigid weather. Any addition of snow complicates air traffic control visibility, and related operations even further.

And that’s the gist of cold weather and its effect on an aircraft. Though aircraft fly more efficiently at colder temperatures, extreme cold weather is a nightmare for airport operations.

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