Aircraft De-icing Systems

For much of the U.S., de-icing is a necessity of flying during most of the year. While it might be annoying for passengers to wait on the plane as the de-icing fluids wash over the plane, it’s a serious task for flight crews. Ice causes a great deal of concern from an operational safety perspective and every precaution must be taken before a plane can depart. In early 2018, Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel over 200 flights due to a shortage of de-icing fluid.

The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) operations manual notes that all aeroplanes are designed to “fly clean.” This means the plane should be free from foreign substances on the fuselage and flight control surfaces. The ICAO manual further states that snow, slush, ice and frost are all safety hazards that, if not dealt with, can become detrimental to the performance of an aircraft. The most common means of de-icing is the spraying of a fluid called propylene glycol. The orange fluid, heated to 150 Fahrenheit and pressurized, is used to blast off any contaminants on the plane.

In extreme conditions, de-icing fluid is used in tandem with anti-icing fluid. Though they sound like the same thing, they serve different purposes. While de-icing fluids are used to remove ice, anti-icing fluids are used to prevent the formation of ice to begin with. Anti-icing fluid is much more viscous, allowing it to adhere to the aircraft surface for a much longer time. In general, pilots have under 22 minutes to take off from the time the de-icing and anti-icing fluids are applied. This is called the “holdover time.”

Despite all the safety regulations and practices, the decision of whether to fly or not ultimately comes down to the captain of the aircraft. They will communicate directly with the ground staff, confirm what aircraft de-icing methods were used, and learn what the holdover time will be. Although it often delays takeoff, de-icing is a crucial practice in ensuring the safety of a flight.

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