Few people are as important in winter air travel as the crews that spray de-icing fluid onto departing airplanes. Without the fluid, there’s a good chance there won’t be a flight. More weekend snow across the Midwest—the forecast for the region predicts up to 5 inches and has airlines gearing up for more de-icing—promises to be a boon for the chemicals’ manufacturers.
“For the North America market, it’s going to be a a blistering good year,” says Gary Lydiate, chief executive of the U.K.’s Kilfrost, one of three big players in the de-icing fluid industry, along with Dow Chemical and Swiss company Clariant. Lydiate says Kilfrost has already shipped about 70 percent of the de-icing fluid it expected to sell this winter, with two-thirds of the season remaining. Come May, once most airport de-icing ends, Kilfrost says volume will total about 20 percent more than during the 2012-13 season.
In recent weeks the company has shipped more than 544,000 gallons of de-icing fluid to Illinois, most of it to Chicago’s O’Hare International, where Kilfrost customers American and United both have hubs. Airlines at O’Hare have used 1.06 million gallons through Jan. 15, compared with 1.1 million gallons for all of the 2012-13 season, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Aviation said in an e-mail. Most airports deal with multiple suppliers, given that carriers generally procure and apply their own de-icing fluid or outsource the job.
U.S. airlines spray more than 25 million gallons of de-icing fluid each year, according to a 2009 study of the industry by the Environmental Protection Agency. In Denver, where a May snowstorm isn’t terribly unusual, airlines used 1.9 million gallons of de-icing fluid last winter and are on pace to go through the same volume this winter, says Scott Morrissey, director of environmental programs.
Most de-icing is performed with propylene glycol, called Type 1, a pinkish-orange fluid you may see washing across your plane window. When weather is more severe—or when a plane must wait in a queue for takeoff—a thicker green liquid, akin to a gel, is applied to coat the airplane for longer periods. Both types of fluid are formulated much like other competitive products, be it motor oil, laundry detergent, or the top-secret syrup Coca-Cola blends with water and sugar, Lydiate says. “It looks like a simple thing on the surface, but underneath there’s a hell of a lot of technology to make it work,” he says of de-icing fluids. “This is not a commodity industry.”
The 3 to 5 inches of snow predicted for the Midwest and Great Lakes this weekend is likely to be followed by a second, frigid taste of the polar vortex, which earlier this month sent temperatures plunging as low as 25 below zero in parts of the Midwest and to single-digit temperatures as far south as Texas. Overnight temperatures could drop as much as 25 degrees below normal later next week, according to forecasts, as the jet stream takes a deeper dip south.
“There is the chance the cold may rival that of early January in some areas,” AccuWeather said in a Jan. 16 client note. The next time you’re on a delayed flight, as the plane is hosed ahead of takeoff, consider the positive: Nasty weather means nice profits for some companies.