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When Do Flights Get Cancelled Due to Snow?

Last January, bad weather helped cancel hundreds of flights across Europe as a strong winter storm disrupted travel to and from the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. Two years ago, during the 2017/2018 winter season, flights in northern Europe were again grounded en masse as heavy snow affected the travel plans of thousands of passengers. But just because your flight can be cancelled due to snow doesn’t mean it’s a common occurrence.

Hundreds of flights take place every day in Europe and around the world under poor, snowy weather. This is possible because as long as visibility is good and safety is ensured, a storm isn’t likely to cancel your next European flight.

So, if you’ve ever wondered “when do flights get cancelled due to snow?” keep reading.

Bad Weather Cancellations

Causing problems during take-off, landings and even while in the air, bad weather like a freak snowstorm can mean the difference between leaving on time and hours-long delays. That’s because when there’s a lot of ice or snow on an airport runway, planes can’t safely taxi, take-off or land. Just like with your car, icy conditions can reduce traction for a plane’s landing gear. Given they are ultimately connected to the ground via a handful of rubber tires that grip the runway’s asphalt, this can prove to be a dangerous situation.

After a heavy snowfall, a loss of traction can lead to hydroplaning or other challenging and dangerous effects. To help combat this, runways have lengthened landing distances during storms. But even a healthy amount of snow won’t keep you grounded indefinitely — airports have and are trained in the use of equipment that helps clear excess snow off their runways. This equipment is an effective tool as long as the rate of precipitation doesn’t exceed its capabilities.

Low Visibility Cancellations

While snow might take some blame, most flight cancellations are actually due to low visibility, which increases the danger aboard a commercial flight. If the pilots’ vision is limited, it’s hard for them to navigate both at the airport and in the sky.

Furthermore, low visibility can hinder a pilot’s dependence on trusted landing instrumentation, which can lead to poor or catastrophic decisions based on where the pilot believes the plane is in relation to the objects around them. Unfortunately, this is how some crashes occur — not because of bad weather. However, it is often the case that bad weather commonly brings upon the circumstances that contribute to low visibility, and, ultimately, to a flight cancellation.

High Wind Cancellations

Even if snow is not actively falling, strong or high winds can still cause problems for flights, both on the ground and in the air. On the ground, sitting snow can be easily kicked up by winds, reducing visibility for pilots and affecting traction. This can lead to unpredictability from moment to moment.

A common concern is that winter storms are often accompanied by violent wind gusts, which can appear out of nowhere and without warning. These wind gusts make both take-offs and landings particularly challenging, if not risky. In the air, high winds can also exacerbate turbulence, frightening passengers and taxing pilots and machinery as the flight travels to its destination.

Airplane Ice Cancellations

Another way that flights can be grounded during particularly cold weather is if ice forms on or around a plane. Common and particularly concerning places are a plane’s wings, landing gear or at the front or rear of the plane. When ice forms in these areas, visibility or control can be greatly affected.

Sleet or ice can also form more often on an airport’s runways during freezing rain conditions, compared to actual snow. The freezing of the runway can wreak havoc on traction during taxiing, take-offs, and landings. While many airports in colder climates have protocols to deal with ice buildup, an excessive amount can lead to a cancellation or a delayed departure.

Cancellation Decisions

While it may seem obvious that airplanes don’t ground themselves, any flight cancellation must indeed be decided somewhere by someone or something. Usually, this takes the form of common protocols that stipulate a cancellation when certain criteria are met. Some common criteria include the amount of snowfall in a given period or whether other flights and airlines are cancelling travel due to bad weather.

Beyond these protocols, regulators at specific airports or airlines may decide to cancel flights to avoid any risk of issues or injury. Even the pilots have the ability to decide it’s best to sit this one out due to factors like low visibility or other issues with their specific plane. When this happens after you’ve already made it to the airport, it can be a frustrating thing. But it’s better safe than sorry, especially considering the potential problems that stem from flying in poor conditions.

Can Planes Fly in Snowstorms?

When a snowstorm hits but travelers still have places to be, a common question of infrequent flyers is, “Can planes fly in snowstorms?” The answer is “it depends.” For the most part, planes can and do fly in all kinds of weather, including snowstorms. However, the type of snowstorm and its effect on runways and planes is what’ll keep you grounded on your next trip.

That said, unless your flight has been delayed or cancelled, you shouldn’t anticipate a problem, and you should still show up to the airport on time. Even with severe weather, flights are typically delayed, not cancelled.

Even if a cancellation occurs, it is usually followed up with an alternate flight that same day, weather permitting, of course. It all comes down to visibility, safety, and whether your actual flight is estimated to be affected.

Cancelled or Delayed Flight? TravelRefund Can Help

If your European flight was significantly delayed or cancelled due to poor weather — or for any other reason — you may have rights under EU261. This 2004 flight delay compensation law protects individuals traveling from an EU airport or to an EU airport on an EU airline.

Indeed, your flight delay refund can be as much as €600 per passenger per flight, which can include each leg of your journey and both your departing and arrival flights. Especially in the winter when poor weather causes travel delays and cancellations. Other issues like overbooking can also be covered, as airlines shuffle their many passengers around. It’s important to know your rights.

However, just because your flight was delayed or cancelled doesn’t mean you’re automatically entitled to compensation. There’s a lot of fine print and rules, and the airlines take special care to confuse the issue with vouchers, alternate flights, and other compensation.

That’s why it’s best to leave it to the experts at TravelRefund. We’ll open and file a claim on your behalf directly with the responsible airline and do all the heavy lifting while you sit back and go about your life. Call or click today to see how we can help you claim the money you’re rightfully owed.