De-icer shortage threatens flights

— -- The federal government is warning airlines that flights could face disruptions this winter because of a severe shortage of a chemical used to keep runways free from snow and ice.

A 99-day strike by Canadian potash mine workers forced companies to halt production of runway de-icing fluid. Potash is a form of potassium, a primary de-icing ingredient.

Spokesmen at large airports that frequently become snowbound vowed to keep flights moving by using alternate chemicals. Even if air travel does not face interruptions, the shortage will cost cash-strapped airports millions of dollars in higher costs and the alternative chemicals cause greater environmental problems, according to the Airports Council International and the American Association of Airport Executives.

The strike ended last month, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates it will take months to get production ramped up. Cryotech, a major manufacturer, estimated that it would produce 2 million to 3 million gallons of the de-icing fluid (potassium acetate) this winter compared with 9 million last winter, according to the FAA.

"It is possible that runways may not be able to be maintained to the same level as previous years during winter storms," said an FAA memo sent to airlines Oct. 29. That could prompt a reduction in the typical flow of takeoffs and landings during storms, the memo said.

The FAA approved new de-icing products manufactured by three different companies. "The airports have a number of different things they can do to make up the difference," said Michael O'Donnell, FAA's director of Airport Safety and Standards.

"We're pretty confident that, while it may cost us more, we will be able to get what we need," said Scott Wintner of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The chemical is sprayed on runways during snowstorms just as highway departments use salt to keep roads clear. There is no shortage of the de-icing fluid used to spray planes, which uses a different chemical.

The shortage of the runway de-icing chemical means airports can expect prices to be as much as three times higher than last year, the FAA said.

Using alternative chemicals that are more harmful to the environment is "definitely a step in the wrong direction," said Lawrence Levine, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.