There’s no question that the problems for the airlines in the last few days have been extreme. With JetBlue, American, Delta and most of the major airlines reporting large numbers of cancellations and delays, the scenes at many airports have been described as chaotic. More than 4,100 cancellations and almost 8,000 delays were reported in the US yesterday, according to FlightAware.com. As of 6 am this morning, flight cancellations already totaled almost 1,800 and were expected to grow as the day progressed.
In many parts of the country, the weather was good – except for a bitter cold blast caused by what meteorologists call a “polar vortex”. But regardless of what it’s called, the wind chill factor has plunged temperatures to significantly below zero. And it is these extremely cold temperatures that have wreaked havoc for the airlines.
But it’s not the aircraft themselves that are affected. As many of you who watch the flight progress videos on board know, temperatures at cruising altitude are also significantly below zero – often 50 to 75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Aircraft themselves are designed and manufactured to operate at these extremely low temperatures.
However, the extreme cold affects the airlines’ ground operations, from the equipment to the products used to deice the planes to the people working. In terms of equipment, fuel trucks, baggage tugs, food service trucks and lavatory service trucks all have problems in extreme cold. For example, belt loaders used to load baggage on aircraft are vulnerable to cold in the same way that cars are vulnerable to cold – basically they have difficulty starting and therefore have to be kept running, often through the day and night. Constant operation can cause a myriad of problems from electrical to hydraulic, requiring equipment maintenance which in turn strains airport personnel who have to juggle increased maintenance in extreme cold. While equipment might normally be brought inside a facility to be worked on, the sheer volume of breakdowns in cold weather can quickly exceed a facility’s capacity. In those cases, workers have to try to fix the equipment outdoors. Working in extreme cold is difficult and usually workers can only work in short bursts. I have known mechanics and other airport workers who have gotten frostbite working outdoors in extreme cold.
Clearly, this greatly extends the time needed to make repairs and so delays mount. And just as maintenance workers are affected by the cold, so to is every other worker on the field – from truck drivers to baggage handlers to fuelers all of them are slowed down by the extreme cold, limiting the amount of time they can spend outdoors, which means all their tasks take much longer to accomplish.
In addition to equipment problems, fuel used to power the ground equipment is also vulnerable to extreme cold. Diesel fuel turns to a jelly-like substance and cannot be pumped into vehicles used to support ground operations. Jet fuel, on the other hand, is blended to operate in the extreme cold that jet aircraft encounter at high altitudes and so is not vulnerable to the recent blast of bitter cold felt around the country.
Glycol, the chemical used to de-ice aircraft, can also be affected by extreme cold. Various media reports from airlines stated that their glycol supplies were freezing. Even without precipitation, aircraft operating through slushy or snowy conditions on an airport will need to have their landing gear de-iced, even if the fuselage was free of ice. Without glycol the only alternative to removing the ice is to put an aircraft in a hangar to melt it. Clearly, this is not a practical solution for most aircraft and adds to delays and cancellations.
In sum, every aspect of ground operations is adversely affected by these bitter cold temperatures. As ground delays cause flights to be delayed, the problem is magnified because pilots timeout on their flight and duty time. Once a pilot exceeds his or her duty time, he or she cannot fly the flight and the flight must await a change in crew, which in turn may be difficult as delays spread across a wide swath of the country.
- Natural Phenomena
- Nature & Environment