Flight attendant averts ‘potential disaster’ after spotting ice on aircraft wings

Simon Calder
Safety procedure: the view of de-icing from inside an aircraft (file photo): Simon Calder

A member of cabin crew prevented an aircraft taking off with a build-up of ice on its wings – averting what they called a “situation which potentially could have ended in disaster”.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has reported that the plane was already on the runway when the pilots abandoned the planned departure.

The sequence of events is explained in startling detail in the latest report from the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme – the CAA scheme that encourages airline staff to raise safety concerns with complete anonymity.

The cabin crew member reported that when they closed the aircraft door after boarding was completed, “I noticed that there was a significant layer of snow accumulating on the wings”.

They added: “Following several aircraft accidents in the past, we know today that an aircraft should not attempt to take-off with any snow or ice on the wings.”

The member of cabin crew said they did not mention it to any of the other crew because they assumed that the pilots must be aware of the snow and had requested de-icing.

But during the captain’s pre-flight announcement to the passengers, no mention was made of de-icing the aircraft – even though it is customary to warn of a short delay while the wings, tail and fuselage are sprayed.

“Still I didn’t say anything because I was still sure that they were going to do it,” the cabin crew member reported.

“I was also thinking that, as experienced pilots, they must know what they are doing and it wasn’t my place to tell them how to do their job.”

The doors were “armed” for departure – in which the escape slides are primed to deploy when a door opens – and the crew took their positions in the cabin for the safety demonstration.

“During the safety demo, I heard the flight crew lock the flight-deck door and start the engines.

“This was when it became clear to me that they had no intention of de-icing the aircraft.”

The aircraft began the short taxi to the runway. By the time the safety demonstration had finished, the plane was already at the holding point ready to enter the runway for take-off as soon as the standard “cabin secure” message had been passed to the pilots.

“Therefore, before beginning to secure the cabin, I told the SCCM [senior cabin crew member] that there was a significant layer of snow on the wings and that it would be a good idea to let the pilots know.

“They looked at the wings and agreed with me and called [the pilots]. They initially replied to ‘stand by’.”

The aircraft actually taxied on to runway, but the planned take-off was then abandoned. The aircraft taxied off the runway and parked in a holding area.

“At this point an announcement was made to the passengers to explain what was happening and the FO [first officer, or co-pilot] came out from the flight deck, asked two passengers sat by the wings to get up from their seat while they shone a torch light over them.

“They then confirmed that it was ice, went back into the flight deck and the captain then made an announcement to say that we would have to de-ice the aircraft.”

During this procedure, the captain called the cabin crew member on the plane’s internal phone system to thank them.

The captain is reported as saying that during the walk-around – part of the standard pre-flight checks – they had seen only snow on the wing but no ice, and had therefore not requested de-icing.

The cabin-crew member reported: “My understanding was that there should be zero contamination on the wings during take-off be it snow or ice.

“In the end, we were delayed so much that the runway was closed due to the snow and our flight was cancelled.”

The member of cabin crew wrote that it was “extremely worrying” that “nobody, except myself, had noticed the severity of the situation which potentially could have ended in disaster.”

The CAA added that the cabin-crew member had not used the airline’s own reporting system “as they felt that they may be penalised for reporting to the company”.

The authority concluded: “If any member of cabin crew has any concerns relating to potential ice or snow, they must raise these as soon as possible with both the SCCM and the operating captain.

“It must never be assumed that someone else has already spotted a potential safety issue – it is better to report something twice than not at all.”

Stephanie Dykes, who is the cabin crew programme manager for the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme, explained the purpose of the system in the same report: “Our role is to ensure that concerns are raised at the relevant level within an organisation or the CAA.

“Our aim is to contribute to the enhancement of flight/cabin safety.”

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