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Freezing Temperatures are Wreaking Havoc at the Airport. What Exactly is Going on?

Posted by Patrick Smith  January 7, 2014 07:02 PM

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So, the recent cold snap has the airlines in a tizzy.

JetBlue, Boston's largest carrier, grounded hundreds of flights in and out of the busy Northeast corridor on Monday and Tuesday, at one point entirely shutting down its operations at JFK and Logan. Other airlines too have grounded flights, stranding thousands of passengers at airports in Boston, New York, Toronto, Chicago and elsewhere, as unusually cold temperatures, spawned by something meteorologists call a "polar vortex," roars across the country.

But the cold weather is only part of what's been happening. The cancellations and delays are the result of an unusual confluence of events -- a perfect storm if you will (much as I hate that expression), of four separate things:

1. Miserably cold temperatures.

2. Ice and snow.

3. The hectic holiday travel rush.

4. The implementation of new FAA regulations governing flight and duty time restrictions for pilots.

Let's take that last one first. A new body of rules, intended to combat fatigue, went into effect on January 1, limiting the number of hours flight crews can remain aloft or on duty. Sure, the airline industry had more than a year to prepare for this implementation, but bear in mind the vastness of a major carrier's operations, with thousands of pilots operating thousands of flights each day. Those are a lot of moving parts, and the revised rules are quite complicated, with changes to flight time restrictions, duty time restrictions, minimum layover times, and so on (always count on the FAA to over-engineer a solution). One airline's informational packet, handed out to crews to assist them in deciphering and working with the changes, is over fifty pages long. The learning curve will be steep. Despite the lead-up time, it was impossible to know for sure how the new regulations would affect things -- particularly when, on the very first weekend they took effect, stormy and freezing weather began pummeling some of the nation's busiest airports.

Ice and snow need to be dealt with regardless of the temperature. Aircraft need to be free of contamination, and runways and taxiways need to be clear. (For everything you never needed to know about icing and deicing, see chapter three of my book.) But while ice and snow were a problem over the weekend, the trouble over the past few days has been the cold. How is it that planes are being grounded simply from cold? After all, it's about 60 degrees below zero at 39,000 feet. Why would sub-freezing temperatures prevent a plane from flying?

Well they wouldn't. If anything, airplanes perform better in cold weather than in hot weather. Some planes do have limits that prohibit operation when ground temperatures fall below a certain point (the complications here involve starting the engines, cold-soaked oil and such), but that's not the issue here. This isn't about a plane's ability to fly. It's about the weather's impact on the support infrastructure. That is, airport personnel and the ground support equipment -- the various people, vehicles and machinery that go into supporting an airline's operation. You can't load and unload the luggage, fuel the tanks or cater the cabins if the baggage carts and belt-loaders aren't working, the trucks aren't starting, and employees are so cold they can hardly move.

Meanwhile, airlines are becoming more and more conservative when bad weather looms, preemptively readjusting their schedules before the brunt of any storm actually move in. This is highly unfortunate if you're one of the many people whose flight is delayed or canceled, and you find yourself sleeping under a bench in the terminal, but things would likely be a lot worse, for an even greater number of people, had the airline attempted to push through. And remember that planes don't simply fly back and forth between the same two cities; what happens in Boston or New York affects flights, and their passengers, further down the chain, in cities across the nation and the world. Drawing down the operation here helps protect those passengers elsewhere.

Like so much in commercial aviation, it's never as simple as it seems. A crisis, an accident -- almost always it's the result of multiple factors; a compounding of things gone wrong.



This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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