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Perhaps the most basic thing we do is change our schedule. We increase service to Florida, the Caribbean and other areas people visit to escape the cold. We also add service to winter-sports destinations such as Vail and Steamboat Springs, Colo. — places we serve less often or not at all in warmer months — to delight skiers and snowboarders.
Changes in the weather affect our schedule in other ways too. The polar jet stream (an air current 22,000 to 39,000 feet above North America, Europe and Asia) flows from west to east more strongly in the winter than in the summer. This slows westbound flights and slightly speeds eastbound trips. For example, our New York–to–L.A. “transcons” take 30 minutes longer in winter than in summer. Conversely, eastbound transcons are about 15 minutes faster in winter. Similar changes occur on trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights.
Aircraft are designed for the cold because it’s always winter at cruise altitude. As a rough rule of thumb, air temperature drops about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000-foot rise in altitude, to a limit of about 70 degrees below zero. Whether our planes are on the ground, climbing or descending through cold temperatures, or flying at cruise altitude, we must keep key parts warm. During flight, we circulate hot air from the engines to keep many parts of our planes warm and dry. Our aircraft windshields have built-in heating elements, too, akin to an auto’s rear-window defroster. Our mothers always reminded us to close the door, and that directive certainly applies to airplanes. This is especially important when planes are parked overnight, when we also drain water lines and remove galley coffeemakers to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.
In some parts of our network, handling winter precipitation is a near-daily challenge. Safe flight depends on an aircraft having its wings, engines and control surfaces free of freezing rain, ice and snow, so naturally we spend a lot of time, energy and money keeping all these surfaces clean. At our Chicago O’Hare hub, for example, we have a fleet of new deicing trucks, which have cut our deicing times in half and have reduced our use of deicing fluid by 75 percent. These “smart trucks” mix the necessary fluids precisely, based on temperature, heat the fluid as it’s needed (rather than in a tank) and have booms that are able to get closer to our aircraft.
While new technology is great, it is ultimately the experience and know-how of our people (as an airline, we have more than 80 winters under our belts) — along with the sheer fortitude required to brave the elements — that keeps our operation humming through all sorts of weather.
Winter is upon us (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and my hope, of course, is that you will never get caught in a weather delay. But if you do, I am sure you will appreciate the many people working hard to make absolutely sure your aircraft is ready to fly safely. Speaking of appreciation, let me close, as always, by thanking you, on behalf of every member of our team at every latitude, for flying with us today. Remember: If you don’t like the weather where you are, don’t wait! Let us help.
Happy holidays!Gerard J. Arpey