Can Planes Land on Ice? Your Runway FAQ's Answered

Winter travel can be stressful and chaotic, with never-ending delays and schedule-ruining flight cancellations. But as annoying as that can be, a recent incident reminds us of how serious flying in inclement weather really is.


Delta Flight 1086 skidded off the runway and crashed into a fence at LaGuardia Airport. (Photo: Amber Reid/AP)

On Thursday, Delta Flight 1086 was attempting to land at LaGuardia Airport, when it skidded off the runway and crashed through a chain-link fence. At the time, New York City was experiencing moderate snow, and according to reports, the plane had to briefly circle the area due to issues with snow and ice before touching down. After the accident, the 125 passengers aboard had to exit the plane by sliding down an inflatable chute. No major injuries were reported.

Related: Plane Skids Off Runway and Crashes at NYC Airport

As passengers, we rely on the expertise of air traffic control and our pilots to navigate these difficult situations. Still, we can’t help but have a few questions about just how safe those runways are as we take off and land.

So, to fulfill your curiosity, we reached out to aviation experts to find answers to your most frequently asked runway questions.

How often does something like this happen?

Runway incidents are pretty rare. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) there were 17 runway excursion accidents in 2013 out of a total of 36.2 million flights. There were 98 in the five years between 2009-2013, out of 174 million flights conducted. Results for 2014 will be released later this month.

Who’s in charge of determining if a runway is safe to land on?

The airport authority is in charge of runway maintenance. This includes making sure that it is plowed and clean. But according to Joe Brancatelli, editor of, the decision to land is ultimately up to the pilot. “The pilot is relying on the airport authority’s evaluation of the runway,” says Brancatelli. “But a pilot can abort a landing for any reason. He or she has ultimate power, because in the end, the responsibility is on them.”

What happens if a runway isn’t safe to land on?

If a runway is deemed unsafe to land on, that could extend your flight time. “In any situation where the pilot determines it’s unsafe to land, he or she can decide to go to another airport,” said Scott Mayerowitz, airlines reporter for the Associated Press.

Similarly, when Delta Flight 1086 skidded off the runway, conditions were not safe for other aircraft, and LaGuardia temporarily closed. “Many planes on final approach had divert to other cities, including Hartford, Conn.,” said Mayerowitz.


Snow or ice on a runway can drastically reduce friction. (Photo: Thinkstock)

When does an airport runway close?

When considering closing a public-use airport or runway, airport operators must contact the nearest FAA District or Regional Airports Office prior to taking any action.

Can planes land on an icy runway?

While technically possible, landing on ice is not preferred. “A heavy plane can land on snow, slush, or ice, but it reduces the traction and the ability to brake,” said Mayerowitz. “It’s really decided on a case-by-case basis.

On that note, according to, in very cold and icy situations, runways can actually provide greater friction. This is how many airports in arctic areas are able to operate. The only FAA-registered ice runway in the lower 48 states opened in New Hampshire on March 2.

What do they use to de-ice aircraft and runways?

After plowing and shoveling, many airports use various approaches to de-ice runways. According to the the Skybrary, airports may apply sand, or chemicals such as potassium acetate. 

Related: 10 Most Terrifying Runway Close Calls

What role does runway length play during a landing in inclement weather? 

LaGuardia Airport in New York City is known for having shorter-than-average runways. In fact, many of its runways are only 7,000 feet long, while nearby JFK has runways measuring twice that length. While LaGuardia’s runways are perfectly safe, if disaster should hit, they don’t allow for as much recovery time.

“Think of it in terms of driving a car on an icy road,” said Brancatelli. “If you go into a spin because there’s an ice patch, and you have a half-mile of clear road ahead, you have time to regain control. But if there’s a guardrail 10 feet in front of you, there’s less chance to recover.”


Landing a plane in snowy weather is all about control. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Is there anything on the runway to help a plane stop?

As it turns out, many airports have placed a material at the end of their runways that crushes under the weight of an airplane to slow it down. “It’s almost like a gravel or sandpit concept, but a harder substance,” said Mayerowitz from the Associated Press. “It slows down the momentum of an aircraft, so it functions like a crumpled deceleration zone.”

What about the berms on the side of some runways? Are those just for decoration?

No, the berms on the side of runways near bodies of water are there for two very important reasons. First, they keep liquids such as jet fuel out of the water. And second, “It’s the last bit of resistance to keep a plane from heading into the bay,” says Brancatelli.

How do I check the conditions at my local airport?

The FAA air traffic control system command center posts information here.

WATCH: Delta Plane Skids Off NYC Runway

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