Atlanta weather | De-icing was major chokepoint for flights after storm

Atlanta's airport would need dozens more de-icing stations for jets to avoid hundreds of flight cancellations that continued even after this week's snow storm left the area, according to Delta Air Lines.

The airport is considering whether to add to the 11 de-icing pads it now has, but any expansion would consume valuable space in order to protect against a relatively rare occurrence, airline spokesmen say.

De-icing became one of the biggest chokepoints affecting operations at Hartsfield-Jackson International after the storm blew past, leaving icy conditions in its wake. Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways combined canceled about 1,000 flights from Atlanta on Tuesday, despite clearing skies. Some cancellations stemmed from storm conditions in the northeast.

De-icing is critical to safe operations and involves spraying special fluid on planes to remove any buildup of ice on wings and fuselages.

Hartsfield-Jackson can normally handle up to 120 flight departures an hour. But when airlines need to de-ice planes, that decreases significantly. At the airport's 11 de-icing pads, some of the ice-caked planes took more than an hour to deice after the storm, according to AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson.

Even at a half-hour per plane, "you would need 60 pads operating at peak functionality to be able to push through enough aircraft to get them out at the normal operational rate of the airport," Delta spokesman Anthony Black said. Ice thickness can affect the speed of de-icing.

Black said the airport “is not teeming with lots of space… so there’s a physical constraint" to how many pads could fit. Other airports may be more accustomed to dealing with snowstorms, but adding more de-icing pads in Atlanta does not mean airlines can completely avoid cancellations, he said.