(Bloomberg) -- As winter approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, airlines are wheeling their de-icing equipment out of storage, typically a heavy truck with a large tank and boom-mounted cannon that sprays ice-melting glycol onto an aircraft’s wings and upper fuselage.

What’s been a routine process for decades can add half an hour or more to an aircraft’s preparation for takeoff — a costly nuisance when quick turnarounds on the tarmac at congested airports are key. Last year in December, Southwest Airlines Co. suffered severe travel disruptions during a massive winter storm, in part because it couldn’t keep up with de-icing its jets. 

Air Canada is now exploring a novel concept to thaw its aircraft — one that does away with the hundreds of gallons of glycol and crew that spray it onto waiting jets. Instead, the airline will use heated tape strips to get the plane takeoff ready with just the flip of a switch.

Canada’s flagship carrier is the first airline to fit hundreds of adhesive ice-melting strips to the upper fuselage, wings and tail of an Airbus SE A320 aircraft, with the rest of the fleet following next year. Electrons on the plane’s surface begin to shake when animated by a high-frequency current, which travels from an electric box inside the aircraft through to the strips. The movement generates heat, causing the ice to melt.

The concept was developed by a Boston startup aptly called De-Ice. Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Alexander Bratianu-Badea, a trained chemical engineer with a finance degree from MIT, said he was inspired to explore the technology a few years back while suffering a lengthy delay when his plane sat on the tarmac waiting for its glycol shower.

Since then, the 32-year-old has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada, as well as Air Canada and other airline executives, to create a technology that’s expected to complete regulatory tests next year. So far, the system has proved it’s safe and can withstand intense weather and in-flight conditions, Bratianu-Badea said in an interview. 

“The idea would to be to start with Air Canada, to deliver systems and improve that experience for passengers,” he said. 

Air Canada says it de-ices aircraft about 45,000 times each year in Canada, and a single A320 aircraft can be sprayed — usually with propylene glycol, an organic compound similar to automotive antifreeze — up to four times a day. Some airports have dedicated de-icing stations, while others have mobile trucks that often work in tandem on each side of an aircraft. 

De-Ice’s technology promises to be “game-changer” for the industry, said Jason Brown, a technical manager at Air Canada who oversees winter operations and the ground icing program.

“The fact that the aircraft can push off the gate and go straight to the runway is a big deal,” Brown said in an interview. “This is like operating a summer schedule.”

Iced-up surfaces are potentially dangerous for aircraft because they can interrupt air flow required for lift. While glycol works on big surfaces like wings and tail stabilizers, some sensors like speed readers are heated separately to avoid freezing. A frozen pitot tube measuring air speed gained notoriety following the June 2009 crash of an Air France Airbus aircraft in the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

On top of long delays, de-icing fluid is subject to volatile cost swings and the chemicals can also harm the environment, said Simon Miles, managing director of consultancy Miles Aviation.

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Yet there are no viable alternatives on the market, especially as the fluid doesn’t add weight — a huge concern for carriers. Airlines would be interested in equipment that eliminated de-icing delays and also had negligible weight additions, Miles said.

Products entering the aviation sector must clear steep regulatory hurdles for safety reasons. The aviation industry has long struggled to find an alternative to glycol spray. Boeing Co. said in 2016 that it would test out an ice-phobic paint on aircraft but eventually shelved the project. Others have experienced malfunctions with de-icing equipment, including Qantas Airways Ltd., which had to turn back a flight to Fiji in January.

De-Ice’s strips stick onto the plane with aerospace-grade, acrylic-based adhesive backing. During regulatory tests, the system was exposed to different temperatures, humidities and chemicals, Bratianu-Badea said. Even UV light and submersion in a heated oil bath couldn’t damage it, he said.

One appeal to Air Canada was the weight of De-Ice’s technology. The target weight of the system typically comes in at the equivalent of two to three passengers, but this can vary, De-Ice said. The system is designed to be fitted during scheduled maintenance so an aircraft isn’t out of action for long, and most of the components can be removed during the summer season.

Don Carty, former chairman and CEO of American Airlines, said de-icing has caused anguish throughout his career primarily because of the cost and lack of glycol. Bratianu-Badea cold-called him during the pandemic to showcase the technology and Carty, who is now an adviser and board member of De-Ice, said nothing like it had crossed his path before.

“Once it has proved itself, the airlines will all jump on board,” Carty said.

--With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.