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New system will warn planes of in-flight icing dangers
Scripps Howard News Service


December 29, 2006

An upgraded aviation weather forecasting system put in place this month for the first time tells airline dispatchers, air traffic controllers and pilots how likely it is that a plane will encounter severe icing conditions.

The new warnings, posted by the National Weather Service's Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, Mo., allows pilots of properly equipped aircraft to fly through areas with light icing, rather than making wide detours around regions with potential icing conditions. This could save the industry more than $20 million a year from injuries, damaged aircraft and extra fuel.

At the same time, it gives operators of smaller planes more precise information about the icing conditions they are likely to encounter on various routes and at different altitudes.

Icy weather, including ice pellets and cloud droplets that freeze to the skin of an aircraft on contact can affect air travel anywhere in the country, particularly during colder months. When ice builds up on aircraft wings, it can increase drag on the aircraft and make it more difficult to keep aloft.

The FAA approved the original ice-warning system, called the Current Icing Product, in 2002, but the displays were less detailed and warned only that icing was possible, with no probability information. And unlike the new version, the maps could not be accessed by pilots in the cockpit.

"This is a major advance that will enable dispatchers and pilots to choose flight paths that avoid icing conditions," said Marcia Politovich, who oversees in-flight icing research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., where the displays were developed.

The maps and plots are based on surface observations, numerical models, satellite and radar data and pilot reports of conditions made to controllers.

"This product will help make commuter flights safer, and it will also enable commercial airlines to avoid the delays and the excessive fuel costs associated with in-flight icing," Politovich added.

A recent study by the National Transportation Safety Board of accidents between 1982 and 2000 found there had been 583 aviation accidents and more than 800 fatalities associated with ice buildup on aircraft during that period, mostly involving general aviation aircraft.

But the study also found that more than 80 percent of all the pilots involved in those accidents had received detailed weather briefings before they took off.

The new maps are considered a "supplemental" product by the Weather Service and the FAA, which requires pilots to get a detailed short-term forecast for the entire route they expect to fly.

Even with many advances in deicing technology for larger aircraft, cancellations and delays due to icy weather can cost airlines millions of dollars in a single day.

For instance, on March 20, 2002, Denver International Airport was confronted with an unusually large number of aircraft that had landed with heavy ice buildup after having circled because of heavy traffic.

With so many aircraft on the ground and requiring deicing at the hub airport, several airlines had to cancel hundreds of flights.


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Ketchikan, Alaska