However, understanding a bit of airline winter operations may help you have a better travel experience.
When there is snow or ice at your departure or arrival airport, airlines, airports and air traffic control normally put “winter ops” into effect. For airlines this means having an effective de-icing program, for airports it’s snow plowing airport surfaces and for air traffic control it means “metering”, take-off and landing timed slots (delays).
These elements disrupt the smooth flow of air across the wings and tail which seriously degrade these surfaces ability to produce lift.
Producing lift is essential for the airplane to fly.
Deicing is usually a two step process and passengers are informed by the flight crew when this is required. The fact that it is snowing does not mean that the airplane needs to be deiced. Deicing is only necessary if the snow is sticking (accumulating) on the critical surfaces of the airplane. The airplane must just be free and clear of snow and ice prior to take-off.
A 10-20 minute process that depends on the current airplane and weather conditions.
Nonetheless, there are time and weather limits to safety protection given by de-icing.
Should the weather conditions change or if there are lengthy delays for take-off, your flight may have to be deiced a second time.
Fortunately, airlines build extra time into their winter schedules to allow for such events. This should lead to minimum delays for your flight. However, due to the new passenger bill of rights, airlines may cancel flights if delays will exceed the new rules time limits.
This can be noticed in the form of a sweet odor during initial taxi out or departure.
However, this odor will dissipate en route to your destination.
Once in the air, the airplane's on board anti-ice system (normally hot air from the engines) keeps critical areas free of snow and ice.
Deicing and winter ops are just part of the process that allows airlines to safely take you to your destination when Mother Nature wants to wreak havoc on your travel plans.