If you’re wondering if planes can fly in the snow, the answer is yes.
Commercial planes can fly in the snow, but the plane will struggle to takeoff and land unless appropriate safety preparations are made in advance.
Commercial planes usually fly fine under snowfall due to flying at higher altitudes, as well as because of how large and well-equipped they are, making it rare for snowfall to cause flight cancelations.
Smaller planes that fly at lower altitudes and are not as well-equipped, however, will struggle to fly in the snow.
Can Planes Fly in the Snow? (Take-off vs. Cruising Altitude vs. Landing)
Taking Off in the Snow
Planes can take off during snowfall without issue, but are unable to land when it’s snowing without prior preparation.
A runway’s surface has to be deiced for a plane to land safely.
This is because landing in snow-covered runways can cause planes to lose traction.
Landing in the Snow
According to Federal Aviation Administration guidance, planes are not permitted to land on an ice-covered runways unless there are no alternatives.
If snowing, pilots will make full use of special runway lights and instruments to safely land on a snow-covered runway as best as possible.
Some planes are also equipped with skis to help land in the snow, though you definitely won’t see this on any commercial airliner.
Commercial planes cruise at altitudes of around 30,000 to 36,000 feet, while private jets cruise at around 41,000 feet.
In both cases, even though the outside temperature can dip to as low as -60C (-76F), these planes cruise at altitudes in which snowfall can be completely avoided.
However, particularly when descending, snowfall can decrease visibility and cause navigational problems, so flying under heavy snow is rarely ideal.
Can Planes Fly in the Snow? (Light Snow vs Heavy Snow)
Light snowfall only causes flight delays if the airport lacks snow removal equipment.
Most airlines can easily clear light snow, so unless there are operational issues, flights shouldn’t be delayed.
Small planes can’t fly under light snowfall unless they have deicing equipment.
Heavy snowfall is much more likely to cause flight delays or cancelations.
Heavy snowfall reduces visibility, making both landing and taking off unsafe.
Heavy snowfall also sometimes causes logistical problems like preventing ground staff from reaching airports.
Most airlines have deicing and anti-icing protocols for heavy snowfall that have to be completed before aircraft can take off.
How Snow Affects Small Planes vs. Commercial Planes
Small planes cannot fly under snowfall, since they fly at lower altitudes and are more affected by changing winds and weather conditions than large commercial planes.
Small planes also have weaker engines which makes it difficult to escape dangerous weather conditions, and they lack the climb to reach higher altitudes above the snowfall.
Small planes are also more dependent on sight when landing, so snowfall can make landing dangerous.
Large commercial airplanes can easily fly during snowfall.
Most modern airplanes have deicing equipment, are less affected by turbulence, and can climb to higher altitudes to escape the snow.
If a commercial airplane pilot or air traffic controller worries that a flight path is unsafe because of snowfall, they can alter their flight path, but this rarely happens.
Location of the Snow (Wings vs. Engine)
Heavy snowfall causes little to no danger to airplane’s jet engines.
The greatest threat to airplane engines comes from precipitation like rain and ice that blocks inlets of air into aircraft engines, which can cause engine flameout, shutting the engine down.
Engine flameouts are rare, and most planes have anti-ice valves that feed hot air into the engine, to prevent ice formation.
Ice or snow accumulating on an aircraft’s wings will prevent smooth airflow over the aircraft, causing a lack of lift. Most aircraft have defenses against ice and snow buildup on the wings.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for example, uses a set of electrically heated blankets bonded to the inside of the wing’s edges to prevent ice formation.
During snowfall, if a pilot worries about ice or snow formation on the wings, he will climb the plane to higher altitudes to escape the snow.
How Much Snow Does it Take to Delay or Cancel a Flight?
Flight delays or cancelations because of snowfall are more on an airport’s preparedness than the amount of snowfall.
In general, if an airport isn’t use to snow and has no protocols in place, snowfall up to 4 inches could cause major flight delays, and snowfall of 10 inches or more will cancel most flights.
What Affects Whether a Flight Will Be Delayed or Canceled By Snow?
Number of De-icing Trucks
Airports with large numbers of deicing trucks can deice planes and runways quickly and are less likely to delay or cancel flights during snowfall.
Chicago Airport, for example, is famous for operating flights even during 10 inches of snowfall.
Reduced visibility from snowfall can cause flight delays and cancelations, since it becomes harder for planes to land or take off.
Often when snowfall reduces visibility, Air Traffic Control will have airlines land and take off their planes away from each other to reduce the likelihood of a plane crash.
Length of Runaway
Pilots calculate runway length to estimate take-off and landing time.
When snow accumulates on runways, it decreases friction.
The reduced friction can be compensated if the runway is longer, so airports with longer runways are likelier to operate under heavy snowfall.
What Happens When Flights Are Canceled Due to the Snow?
Airlines usually predict likely flight cancelations because of snow, but when a flight is suddenly canceled, airlines will most likely do one of the following:
- Transferring your flight to another flight: Your airline may transfer you to another existing flight, or they might reschedule your flight after weather conditions change.
- Book you onto another airline: If an airline cannot book you in another of their flights, they’ll provide transfer you to a different airline’s flight at no charge.
- Issue a refund: If an airliner can’t find you another flight, either within their own schedule or with another airliner, they will refund your ticket. It’s rare to be refunded for a canceled flight. The vast majority of times you can expect to be transferred to another flight if yours gets canceled because of snowfall.
Wrapping things up, most commercial places can fly fine under snowfall, and if they want, they can always climb higher to escape the snow.