January 3, 2013

Unpacked: Deicing

Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry! This time we’re talking about a timely winter topic, deicing.

Deicing is exactly what it sounds like: the prevention or removal of snow or ice from aircraft during winter weather. From North to South and East to West, ’tis the season to deice, though the training for winter operations happen year-round.  We plan far out from when the first freezing raindrop or snowflake falls to ensure we have resources in place to properly deice when that winter weather arrives.

Why deice?

Aircraft wings are very carefully designed in shape and weight to help a plane gain the lift needed to take off and snow or ice that accumulate on the wings can impair the aircraft’s ability to do so efficiently. Once in-air, planes are equipped with deicing mechanisms that harness the heat from the engines to vaporize any ice that could potentially form. The FAA and the EPA provide very strict guidelines for operating conditions around deicing. For these organizations, the airports and the airlines, safety is always the number one priority. We follow the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) recordings to determine the exact weather conditions at a given city and the subsequent deicing protocol.

What is deicing fluid?

Much like antifreeze that the average driver uses to keep a car’s engine from freezing, deicing fluid used for planes is similar. Generally composed of propylene glycol, airlines employ deicing and anti-icing fluids the former of which is called type 1 and is hot (between 140 and 180 degrees Fahrenheit) and removes existing snow or ice from the aircraft wings, while the latter is called type IV, which serves as a protective layer to prevent ice from forming. Think of it as washing and waxing a car: water is used to first clean the car and then wax is added to protect it; the same is true of type I and type IV deicing fluids.

How do we deice?

While deicing procedures differ slightly, generally speaking someone will spray the deicing fluid onto the plane in downward movement from a specialized truck, and make his or her way around the aircraft, spraying the exterior of the plane. In our largest focus cities, Boston’s Logan and New York’s JFK, we have “pad locations” a designated location where we deice aircraft. We can deice an average of eight to nine aircraft an hour, but our more efficient this year so far is 17 an hour!

We at JetBlue have 30 winter operations stations set up throughout our network of 75 cities, where we deice aircraft. We work very closely with business partners and the airports that we serve to ensure that adequate equipment, training and oversight are in place to run safe and efficient deicing. We divide our cities into three classes, 1, 2 and 3, based on the average amount of winter weather that each sees. Class 1 cities like Buffalo, New York, Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah, generally see the most snow and ice per year, while Class 3 cities like Jacksonville, Florida or Sacramento, California, see the least. Every city with a winter operations station also has a winter operations coordinator who oversees the deicing operations for his or her particular city.

Environmental concerns

Some of our cities like Westchester County, New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Hartford, Connecticut, have fluid reclamation procedures, where we’re able to collect used deicing fluid which is then used for a variety of other purposes. In New York’s JFK, where we have our largest base of operations, the deicing trucks are new and highly efficient. They use what’s called “forced air” which combines air with type I fluid on the aircraft (and pushes snow and ice off), which decreases the amount of deicing fluid needed.

Our Airports team works closely with other teams like JetBlue University, Safety, Flight Operations, Quality Assurance, and Technical Operations to create a curriculum with the most up-to-date tools and protocol and our Ground Operations crewmembers undergo deicing training each year to prepare for winter operations. Planning for the next winter starts as early as two weeks after the previous winter ends. That means meetings begin as early as April or May, with training commencing in July and August so that we’re ready to go before you can see your breath in the cooling air.

In cities like Buffalo or Syracuse, which see close to ten feet of snow on average per year, deicing is second nature. Winter weather generally causes low impact to flights in these cities because they’re so accustomed to operating under these conditions. Morning frost can be a concern for places that are warm like Las Vegas and Orlando, and flights might get delayed a couple of times a year while we harness a technology called “solar power” and wait for the sun to melt the frost formed on the wings.

Fast facts about our deicing operations:

  1. We have 30 winter operations stations around our network
  2. We deiced 2,527 aircraft last winter (a mild winter compared with 2010, when we deiced 4,998)
  3. We take about one week a year off from planning winter operations (the other 51 weeks we’re planning our deicing procedures!)
  4. In cities like JFK and Boston, we can deice an average of eight or nine aircraft an hour; the record for the most deiced in one hour this year stands at 17
  5. In cities like Las Vegas and Orlando, a special technology called “solar power” is used to melt the occasional frost from aircraft

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!

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