Would you push the button?

I was sitting in an over-wing position on an Embraer 190 aircraft yesterday and saw what appeared to be frost on the trailing edge control surfaces of the aircraft. The temperature was 5 degrees Celsius according to the METAR when I boarded the aircraft, under partly cloudy skies and 70% humidity. The aircraft was on a 25-minute turn or so after a relatively short flight into the aircraft I was departing from. I did not see the walk around by the flight crew, nor did I observe a tactile inspection on my side of the aircraft. I simply know that we did not deice prior to departure.

Was the contaminant on the wings frost or liquid condensation? The reality of the situation is that thin layers of frost contamination and liquid condensation on an aircraft surface look almost identical, and the only way to be entirely sure that no contamination is adhering to an aircraft surface is to perform a physical tactile inspection on the coated surface.

My question to you is: “would you push the button to alert the crew?”



  1. Roger Zbinden says:

    In an airport you are not familiar with, it may very well be that deicing will take place at a dedicated facility far away from the gate. And contrary to what is I believe an obligation in Canada,, in my country the pilot has no obligation to advise passengers of a planned deicing operation. Therefore it may be normal that the aircraft leaves the gate as is.
    So personnally I would not start by complaining but by asking the crew if deicing was planned. And complain only if this was not the case.
    What did you do ?

    • Michael Chaput says:

      I was waiting to be asked this question. Here’s what happened:

      10 minutes prior to pushback, a SPECI was issued and the temperature dropped to 3 degrees Celsius with 3 kph winds and an increase in humidity to 85% (god, I love the internet). At this point, I made the cabin crew aware of the situation, who communicated it to the flight crew. I was later informed that the flight crew were told it was liquid, and that was good enough for me.

  2. Peter Hansen says:

    Absolutely. I have reported observations of this nature on several occasions while travelling as a passenger. However each time I took the approach of being as discreet and professional as possible; by simply getting the cabin crews attention, supplying a copy of my business card and requesting the Flight Crew inspect or have an inspection completed based on my observations. On each occasion the inspection was done and subsequently De-icing was conducted.

    I would also add an interesting observation. I have never received any negative feedback from the Flight Crews. In fact while disembarking at the destination city, the Flight Crew has always acknowledged their appreciation, either with a simple thank you or just a “nod”.

    Key is to be discreet and professional. Most important – Better safe than sorry!

  3. Absolutely, and it’s because of what we know and stand for in the industry. Maybe it generates a simple response from the flight crew announcing their findings during the walk-around or at best they announce they are planning to get deiced.
    Similar situation flying out of ABQ one morning and I was seated right over the wing. And yes there was frost, not allot very similar to the picture you have attached. I waited to see if the flight crew would say something about getting deice during their announcement, they mentioned nothing about getting deiced and as we were taxiing out I rang the FA call button, the flight attendant came back I was very polite and told her who I was and expressed my concerns about the condition of the wings. Moments later the Captain came on and announced we were re-positioning to get deiced, he goes on to state operations was not prepared or ready while we were at the gate and we were having to use a backup plan. The aircraft made several maneuvers and we pulled back onto the ramp down from our gate and the airline deiced us. I thank the crew as I exited the aircraft. DT

  4. Chris Schock says:

    Differentiating between frost and condensation within this temperature range is extremely difficult to perform by visual inspection alone.

    We know the OAT was +5°C, but what was the skin temperature? Composites, such as the spoiler panels here, tend to cold soak quicker and have low thermal conductivity, hence the potential does exist that frost is present here.

    After the Dryden accident, it became law in Canada that the Flight Crew must make an announcement of their intention to deice the aircraft. Other states may have similar regulations. The purpose is that in conditions such as this, if a passenger or other crew member should suspect contamination is present whereby deicing may be required, they are given the opportunity to ask the question.

    When in doubt, check it out.

  5. It is expected that a passenger would bring this to the attention of the crew. More often than not, passengers feel at liberty to express their concerns – and they should. One facet of winter operations that we encourage our Flight Crew to follow is that sometimes a little extra communications to the passengers goes a long way. In this instance, the Captain making the announcement that a joint tactile inspection was carried out during pre-flight would certainly put those concerned at ease.
    The reality is, at all our major hubs, the aircraft’s critical surfaces are inspected by both ground de-icing coordinators and the flight crew members conducting the walk-around prior to departure. The Flight Crew operating the flight will more than likely already be aware of the aircraft contamination state. However, a friendly call from a passenger is always welcome.

  6. Laird McKinnon says:

    I absolutely would push the button, and I have…twice!

    One incident was handled extremely well. I was able to get the flight attendants attention prior to taxi. She alerted the pilots, and I was informed that we would be getting de-iced and anti-iced.

    The second incident did not go so well (please keep in mind that this is the condensed version of the events). I noticed the frost covering a large percentage of the wings (in particular the ailerons) of the Boeing 757 – quite similar to Mike’s situation. I assumed we’d be going directly to the CDF, however when we taxied past the CDF and the flaps were set for take-off I realized that we were not going to get de-iced – so I pushed the button. The flight attendant told me that if it was not a medical emergency, it would have to be dealt with in the air. So I pushed the button again, and after numerous gestures to the flight attendant, I actually had to yell down the aisle asking why we were not getting de-iced. She communicated my concern to the pilots and later responded by saying that the pilots were aware of the “small amount of frozen particulates adhering to the wing, and that it was not a problem”. I was shocked, and continued to plea my case. I found out later that the flight attendants were contemplating going back to the gate to have me arrested by Homeland Security. Needless to say, we took off withough incident. I always wonder what would have happened if we would have rotated a little early, or lost an engine on take-off. Talking to the pilots after the flight, they said they were aware of the frost, but did not see it as an issue.

    As you can see the incident was not handled well, however I did follow-up with the airline, and this incident was used to highlight deficiencies, which I’m assuming were addressed, so that a similar incident would not happen again. I still have the letter from the Airline’s Director of Flight Safety.

    Even when you push that button, things may not get any easier. I always think back about what I could/should have done differently. It’s a hard decision to make, but when your own life is involved, it makes it a lot easier.

  7. Ian Anderson says:

    I have also pushed the button on more than a few occasions. I have even made an aircraft be deiced 3 times due to impoper procedures and inadequate coverage and protection of type 4 anti-icing fluid. I was really popular on that day! But, as stated by my esteemed colleagues above, better safe than sorry. As trained and /or knowledable experts in the area of aircraft deicing, we have a responsibility to speak up if we perceive any safety concern. It is that professional attitude that makes aircraft travel the safest mode of transportation.

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