Can Planes Fly Safely In Snowy Conditions?

If you plan on flying during winter, you might wonder how snow will affect your plane. Can planes even fly in the snow? And how safe will the journey be?

Most commercial planes can fly in the snow if snow is removed from the aircraft before takeoff and runways are clear from snow and ice. In extreme conditions, take-off and landing procedures are risky; thus, airlines may delay or cancel flights.

Both airports and airlines use complex methods to ensure snow does not affect your flight. In this article, I will dive into the impacts of snow on aircraft operation, delays and procedures to anticipate, and how airlines create the safest flights possible. 

Can Planes Fly in the Snow?

Snow can be a significant safety hazard to planes if unaddressed, both on the ground and in the air. Potential issues include: 

  • Inability to maneuver the plane: If snow is stuck to the wings, it will distort their shape, and the aircraft cannot lift upward correctly. 
  • Malfunction: A buildup of ice can damage the engine when it interferes with its fan blades, removing a source of air and potentially resulting in an engine flameout. This is when the engine shuts off because it can’t produce flames.
  • Difficult visibility: Pilots may not have a clear view of the sky ahead or the runway below during a snowstorm. 

For planes to fly in the snow, airport maintenance teams must remove snow or ice buildup from the aircraft before take-off to help avoid these and other potential issues. Ice and snow are removed using a two-step process: 

  1. De-icing the plane: In the de-icing process, a hot mixture of glycol and water is sprayed onto a plane’s surface, essentially melting away any built-up ice. Teams may also manually remove ice or snow using brushes or brooms. This method is only used for small planes where workers can easily reach the wings.
  2. Anti-icing the plane: After de-icing, there’s still a risk of ice deposits forming before the plane has taken off. To prevent this, teams use an anti-icing mixture consisting of a thickened, cold mixture of glycol and water, spraying this on the plane’s surface. This mix stops snow or rain from settling and solidifying on the wings or near the engine.

Private Vs. Commercial Planes Flying Through Snow

Commercial planes fly 6 to 8 miles (9.66 to 12.88 km) above sea level, which means they are higher than where snow is falling. So while cruising, these planes generally aren’t susceptible to any snow damage. 

Yet, how do commercial planes ascend from ground level through the falling snow to get to their cruising altitude? These planes have built-in de-icing mechanisms that prevent any ice or snow from solidifying on the aircraft and causing problems with the wings or engine.

However, this does not apply to small private planes, which cruise at lower heights of 2,000 to 10,000 feet (0.61 to 3.09 km). These smaller planes don’t fly during snowy weather. 

Does Snow Cause Flight Delays?

Snow does cause flight delays commonly during moderate to heavy snowfall, as de-icing measures are usually used. Depending on how much de-icing equipment an airport has, wait times for runways vary. In extreme conditions, such as a snowstorm, flights may be canceled or delayed for long periods.

It can take time to remove ice and snow from both planes and runways, but it is worth the wait for the safety it provides.

Some airports expect heavy snowfall each winter and have equipment for any snow they might encounter. If you’re flying to or from an airport well-equipped with snow removal machinery, the process should be smooth and the wait times short.

How Do Airports Keep Runways Clear of Snow?

It can be problematic and hazardous when snow covers the plane or the runway, as planes can slide, and increased friction interferes with the take-off. 

However, snow won’t prevent a plane from taking off or landing if the airport has appropriate machinery to clear the snow from the runway and the aircraft.

There are a few different methods airport maintenance teams use for clearing snow on runways, each dependent on the type and amount of snow expected in that area each year.

Airports keep runways clear of snow using large plowing or broom-like vehicles. Plows are used for wet, compact snow, and broom vehicles are for powdery snow that the wind may sweep into the air. Chemical de-icers may also be applied to the runway to prevent snow or ice from sticking.

Can Planes Land on Icy Runways?

Planes cannot land on icy runways per the Federal Aviation Administration guidance. For safety reasons, the FAA prohibits planes from landing on icy or snow-covered runways when the pilot has another option. 

If the original runway is covered in ice or snow, the pilot will contact an Air Traffic Controller, who will direct them to a different runway, whether in the same airport or not.

Landing on icy runways is a serious safety concern that has the industry considering heated pavement technologies to keep runways clear from snow and ice. 

Can Planes Fly Through Snow in the Air?

During a flight, planes use what’s known as a bleed air system, where extremely hot air is pumped internally through areas of the plane where ice has accumulated, melting the ice mid-flight.

In some modern planes, a more fuel-efficient system is used where “blankets” lining the inside of a plane’s wing are heated. This technology also melts ice deposits in the same way.

The Bottom Line

While snow presents plenty of concerns for aircraft, safety systems embedded in planes and airports keep us all safe from hazards. 

The most you should worry about is a flight delay when it comes to snowy weather. And if that means double-checking the safety of your upcoming flight, it’ll be worth the wait.
For more helpful information about traveling on an airplane, check out my other post, “Are Flights Always Full?”.