YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The “bomb cyclone” that blew through the United States this past weekend caused thousands of delayed flights. These flight cancellations could not have come at a worse time as many people were trying to fly home for the holidays.

Mass cancellations of flights are inevitable when strong storm systems affect highly populated areas. This weekend’s flight cancellations garnered attention from all of the media outlets due to the time of year.

You might be wondering: what time of year are flights most likely to be canceled due to the weather? Well, if you are waiting in an airport terminal for a delayed flight then you might as well educate yourself about the relationship between flight cancellations and weather. There is quite a bit of turbulence.

Honestly, you probably already guessed the answer to this question. Generally speaking, flights are more likely to be canceled during the winter months compared to the summer months in the United States.

We say “generally” because this is not always the case. Most of the major airports have the most canceled flights during December, January and February, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology.

The exception? Miami International Airport, where cancellations are more likely during hurricane season (August, September and October).

Why are cancellations more likely during the winter months? The answer lies in the type of storms experienced during that time of year.

The two main reasons for winter flight cancellations

There are two main reasons for canceled flights during the winter months.

  1. Snow/ice on the runway that leads to poor traction
  2. Ice/snow accumulation on the wings of aircraft

Number one on the list is obvious. Everyone understands the difficulty of trying to navigate roadways when there is snow and ice. Now, imagine trying to land an airplane moving at 130 miles per hour on a frozen runway.

The second reason might not be as clear. The shape of airplane wings are specifically designed to produce lift by taking advantage of Bernoulli’s principle.

That is, the shape of an airplane wing causes high velocity on top of the wing and low velocity below the wing. This creates high pressure below the wing and low pressure above the wing. Therefore, a lift force is created that moves vertically allowing the plane to lift off the ground.

Example of Bernoulli’s principle on the shape of an airplane wing (NASA).

During winter storms, ice and snow can accumulate on the wings of aircraft, fundamentally changing their shape. This leads to a decrease in the lift provided by the aircraft wings and thus less efficient flights.

Ice accretion on the wing of an aircraft (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

The accretion of ice on airplane wings is also why planes have to go through a “de-icing” period before takeoff. This is the process in which a fluid (a mix of glycol and water) is used to remove the ice from airplanes such that the lift of the aircraft is not affected during the flight.

Unfortunately, the winter storm this past weekend brought many major flight disruptions. However, now you have the knowledge of why this happens and you can explain the science to the other disgruntled passengers while waiting for your delayed flight!