Behind the Scenes With American Airlines’ De-icing Operations

Dec 9, 2018

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In an average year, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport enjoys some 36 inches of snow. One of the world’s busiest airports, ORD serves as a major hub for American and United. With all those planes and all that snow, American Airlines’ de-icing operation at ORD needs to be a well-oiled machine. Leading the charge for American at ORD is Gene Herrick, de-icing operations manager.

The 30+ year veteran of American recently brought me to the ramp for a look behind the scenes. A few days ago, we explained how de-icing works, and this is what it looks like in action.

Gene Herrick, 30+ years with American Airlines, and head of deicing operations at ORD. (Image by author).
Gene Herrick, head of de-icing operations at ORD (Image by author)

American operates its own de-icing operations and does not subcontract to vendors. Herrick is in charge of a team of around 320 trained de-icers at ORD. During the busy times of year, each one works primarily as de-icer. During slower times such as during the summer, the de-icers undertake jobs in operations such as baggage handling. And in the summertime, entire teams report to home base at Dallas – Fort Worth (DFW) for training on de-icing procedures.

They don’t get much of a break—the de-icing season is surprisingly long. Herrick said that de-icing at ORD began September 29 this year. The end of the season last year was June 7, 2018. The reason? Inbound planes can arrive with rime ice, which is like rough frost found on the inside of your freezer. Also, ice can form on the wings on the ground when the fuel inside is so cold that it lowers the temperature of the wings to below the freezing point of water. Moisture in the air then turns to ice on contact with the wings.

The de-icing teams at ORD will arrive to work at around 3am for an eight-hour shift. Most of the aircraft will be deiced at the gate several hours before the flight, if conditions permit. If there’s a lot of precipitation, the crews will wait until closer to departure. It’s a judgment call and Herrick and his team make that call every day.

De-icing Trucks: $1 Million Each

American has invested heavily in its ORD operation. The airline uses state-of-the art de-icing trucks from Vestergaard, a Danish company that has been manufacturing de-icing equipment since the 1960s. Each truck costs around $1 million. The airline operates 42 trucks at ORD, split between it and Envoy, its wholly-owned regional airline. That’s on top of trucks it operates at major hubs including JFK, DCA, DFW and BOS.

One of 42 deicing trucks owned and operated by American Airlines at ORD. (Image by author).
One of 42 de-icing trucks owned and operated by American Airlines at ORD (Image by author)

De-Icing AA 90, a Boeing 787 Bound for LHR

Our first stop was at a Boeing 787: flight AA 90, a 9:15 am departure from ORD to London Heathrow (LHR). We got up close and personal with the state-of-the-art airliner and de-icing operations as passengers were boarding and the final bags were being loaded.

The plane had snow visible on the fuselage, engines and leading edges of the wings.

Snow from the night before awaits de-icing. (Image by author).
Snow from the night before awaits de-icing (Image by author)

“Last night, we got some unexpected precipitation,” Herrick said. He’s as weather-conscious as a pilot, as one would expect. Herrick said he uses about 30 sources of weather info to understand operations, including the METARs, which are meteorological reports used by pilots.

Herrick first led me behind the giant General Electric GEnx engines and pointed to the inside the near of the nacelle. There, water had pooled and frozen in the bottom near the distinctive chevrons. A crew came over with a handheld sprayer attached to a de-icing truck and sprayed out the cowling with heated Type I glycol.

Ice formed overnight in the bottom of the engine nacelle, but was quickly melted away by the American Airlines team. (Image via Author).
Ice formed overnight in the bottom of the engine nacelle, but was quickly melted away by the American Airlines team (Image by author)

“It’s our practice not to spray these planes earlier in the morning, so that when the first officer does his or her walk-around, any fluid they see is not de-icing fluid.”

Next, with passengers loaded and the cargo door closed up (and Gene and I out of the way), three trucks moved into position and began spraying off snow and ice from wing tip to wing root. In less than eight minutes, it was all done. Orange de-icing fluid flowed off the plane at the gate. The 787 was pushed back and proceeded out to the apron.

An American Airlines Boeing 787 (AA 90) being deiced just prior to departure from ORD to LHR. (Image by author).
An American Airlines Boeing 787 being deiced just prior to departure from ORD to LHR (Image by author)

Once pushed back and just before starting the engines, the final step was to spray off the nose of the fuselage. This couldn’t be done at the gate lest de-icing fluid leak into the open main cabin door. Furthermore,  there wasn’t enough room to get trucks in front of the nose — it’s a tight fit at the gate. A quick spray with Type I solution was performed by two trucks.

I listened to the captain of the 787 thank the crew over the radio. He confirmed they had previously sprayed off the “motors” as he called them. (The 787’s first officer would have seen the icing in the engine and snow on top of the engine during the customary pre-flight walkaround, and reported it to the captain.) With a job well done, the 787 taxied out and departed across the pond, on time.

The De-icing Operations Center: Warm 

Our next stop was the de-icing operations center. The first thing I noticed about the center is that it was toasty and smelled of hearty meals. “When it’s busy out there, there’s nobody in here,” Herrick said, noting that staff will pop in for a quick 30-minute bite to eat and then head right back out to the ramp. It seemed like a refuge for the operators in terrible weather.

Inside the center, I met Tom and Pat. Tom began his career at American in January 1969. (For reference, this is before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.) Pat started at American in January 1973. Together, they have 96 years of experience, and most of it in de-icing. That seems like a lot of years, but it is commonplace in the industry, and particularly at legacy carriers such as American.

Command and control. Moving trucks around by the click of a mouse. (Image by Author).
Command and control. Moving trucks around by the click of a mouse (Image by author.

A longtime operator who moved over to managing operations, Pat hadn’t been outside on the trucks in 15 years.

Nowadays, the entire operation is controlled by computer at the ops center and tablet inside each truck. On the screen, Pat was able to monitor the quantity of de-icing and anti-icing fluid in each truck, its position on the field and inbound and outbound aircraft needing de-icing. Trucks were assigned through the click of a mouse. The screen also showed cameras at each gate so that Pat could view the status of any de-icing operation in real time.

The interface looked easy to use and efficient. On the day of my visit, the teams had processed 72 flights by around 10 am, and around 1,800 gallons of Type I glycol at around $7 a gallon. Very little Type IV fluid was used that morning; there was no visible precipitation.

A Merry Crew

The de-icing trucks operate with teams of two, with warm cabs and comfortable seating. The temperature in the spraying cab is controlled by the operator. It’s a lot better than some operations which use open baskets, exposing the crew to the elements.

Halloween at ORD. (Image by Author).
Halloween remnants at ORD (Image by author)

“Yeah, that wasn’t as fun,” one de-icer said to me. The trucks were older and ricketier, too. “On top of that, glycol blows in your face,” he said.

Up close with the nozzle doing the spraying. (Image by author).
Up close with the nozzle of the de-icing truck that does the spraying (Image by author)

Inside the heated cab, the nozzle and basket are each controlled by two joysticks. One controls the direction of the flow and the other controls the shape of the spray and the extendable arm. Manipulating the controls requires manual dexterity to spray the aircraft down quickly and avoid hitting it. The yellow tusks seen above serve as a guide for the operator and stop measure if they get too close to the aircraft. Operating the nozzle is not unlike controlling a video game. The nozzle controls are very responsive.

Not a plane, and not a video game but fingertip control required (Image by author).
Not a plane, and not a video game (Image by author)

Modern de-icing tools such as the Vestergaard trucks deployed by American have sensors that measure the elements five times per second. This allows the systems to automatically determine the best mix of Type I glycol and water.

An American Airlines deicing crew member says hello from 80 feet up. (Image by author).
An American Airlines de-icing crew member says hello from 80 feet up (Image by author)

“Our team is one that cares about passenger safety. It’s a dedicated team and I’m proud of them. They are not afraid of long, hard hours. And each of them pay attention to detail,” said Herrick.

One de-icer I spoke with echoed the thought. “It’s our families on the planes,” he said. A few weeks ago, his cousin’s husband was the pilot.

The next time you pass through ORD, be thankful for the well-oiled machine of American Airlines’ de-icing operations. They’ll have you safely on the way in no time.

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a private pilot. 

All images by the author.

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