Denver Int'l Revamps its Snow Management Strategies

Greg Gerber
Published in: 

Mother Nature gave John Kinney a very rude welcome when he began his job as director of operations and public safety at Denver International Airport. Just weeks after leaving a position in sunny Scottsdale, AZ, Kinney was faced with managing the airport's response to one of Denver's worst blizzards in more than a century - and it hit during peak air travel season.

Facts & Figures

Project: New Snow Management Strategies

Location: Denver International

Impetus: Historically harsh blizzard in 2006 that stranded 5,000+ passengers overnight and resulted in $60 million losses for airlines

Key Changes: Effort is now concentrated on key areas while non-essential, drift-prone runways/ramps are allowed to close; updated multi-function equipment purchased

Plow/Broom Equipment: Boschung; Oshkosh Truck, with integration technology and brooms by M-B Company

Melters: Aero

It was the Friday before Christmas 2006. Weather forecasters predicted a moderate winter storm with about three to four inches of snowfall. Snow started falling at 6 a.m., and within hours it was dumping on the airport at the rate of three inches per hour. Sustained winds of 40 mph and freezing fog added to the mix, decreasing visibility to almost nothing.

"The blizzard came with an intensity and fury that Denver natives had never seen," recalls Kinney. "It caught everyone completely off guard."

When Kinney says "everyone," he means everyone. The airport shut down at 1 p.m. and remained closed for a full day. More than 5,000 passengers were stuck in the terminal overnight and another 186,000 were expected to arrive the next day.

The fog and blinding snow that drifted in from the prairie that surrounds the airport created conditions so bad, pilots were simply parking jets on taxiways and calling air traffic control for a tow to the terminal. The problem was, every gate was full - and the terminal was already packed with stranded holiday travelers.

United and Frontier Airlines both ended up with the majority of their fleets stuck in Denver for the night. By the time the storm was over, it had dumped 22 inches of snow with drifts as high as 6 feet. Even worse, it resulted in $60 million losses to airlines that were already financially strapped.

"We were harshly criticized regarding the 22 hours it took us to reopen the airport," Kinney recalls. "It was painfully clear to our travelers and our staff that our snow management program was antiquated."

What Went Wrong

Once the snow was cleared, Kinney and his team launched into evaluation mode.

Like many airports in the post-9/11 environment, Denver was fiscally conservative due to the frailty of the airline industry. After decades of mild winters, the staff had reallocated scarce funds into areas other than snow removal. Even though Denver received an average of 57 inches of snow annually, it usually melted quickly and caused minimal disruption to airport staff and passengers.

The snow removal staff was content with single-function equipment that required a fleet of drivers - one truck to plow snow, another to sweep the runways, another to blow the snow and another to disperse deicing solution to keep the ground from freezing. Dozens of trucks and drivers were needed to battle just about any type of winter storm.

"We were trying to manage a behemoth of a blizzard with large trucks pushing large plows or front-end brooms and blowers," Kinney notes. "It required an enormous amount of manpower and equipment, as well as a great deal of brute force."

The very stressful and publicly scrutinized battle with the 2006 blizzard jolted the airport out of its false sense of security and prompted it to redesign its entire snow management plan.

In the past, the staff considered every inch of airport pavement a high priority because of the massive fleet of equipment it possessed. The new emergency plan allows for shutting down both east-west runways, which are especially plagued by drifting snow. Staff and equipment are in turn deployed to other areas.

Two work teams were created to handle the eastern part of the airport and two teams to handle the western part. The entire airport was mapped out and the teams developed a strategy to keep essential runways and ramps open - much like highway departments focus first on keeping interstates open, and then state roads and finally county highways.

The result was immediately noticeable. The time it took to clear a runway dropped from 45 minutes to as little as 13, notes Kinney.

The staff also developed a procedure for keeping the Federal Aviation Administration in the loop regarding airport closures and work being done to reopen the facility.

Another part of the redesigned strategy is a plan that details which pieces of equipment should be deployed and in which specific order. This, notes Kinney, cut back on labor costs and ensured that the right equipment was being used for the right job, and that staffing levels are commensurate to the task at hand.

Enhancing the Fleet

As snow piled up in December 2006, the staff realized the equipment it owned needed to be upgraded to handle more diverse situations.

Rather than allowing senior managers to decide what equipment to buy, the maintenance team was called to lead a pivotal role in selecting the machinery. The crew provided a historical perspective and added specific information about what it would take to keep the fleet running, despite mid-storm breakdowns.

"It made sense to have the people who spend time in the seats removing snow and those who must maintain the equipment to have major input," Kinney explains. "We also included representatives of the airlines. The objective was to evaluate equipment based on speed of removal, minimizing runway time and ensuring that pavement wasn't damaged in the process."

The parts office was also involved to ensure enough spare parts would be on hand to cover just about any emergency that could take place - especially during winter holidays when storms are likely and disruptions must be kept to a minimum.

Most importantly, says Kinney, the staff insisted on performance demonstrations of the equipment before making any decisions. "I have to give our vendors credit," says Kinney. "They were very accommodating. They even allowed us to lease the equipment so we could try it. That allowed our people to make sure we were buying exactly what we needed."

The airport acquired dozens of trucks and equipment, much of it multi-function and computer-enhanced with the latest electronics. Rather than just pushing snow from one end of the airfield to another, and allowing it to pile up and reduce visibility, the new system allows for its complete disposal. New Aero brand melters can transform truckloads of snow into drain-safe water as quickly as it's dumped into the hopper.

"As Mother Nature lets us catch our breath before the rematch, we've been able to put the new equipment to the test in a few good storms," Kinney notes.

Reducing Labor, Improving Performance

Denver's new snow fleet includes 24 units from Oshkosh Truck Corporation, with integration technology and brooms by M-B Company. Each truck uses electronics in the cab and engine to tow a 22-foot-wide power broom or push a 24-foot snowplow.

M-B addressed the airport staff's interest in equipment with automatic features by bringing in its control unit for demonstrations. "They saw how easy it was to operate these big trucks," says Mark Larson, M-B vice president and general manager. "Instead of trying to figure out what buttons to push and levers to pull, our system allows drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on what they are doing."

The cooperatively designed Oshkosh unit was engineered to handle large volumes of snow so the airport staff could clean runways in one pass. Hourly removal rates were a key selection factor for runways measuring two miles long and 150 feet wide.

In the past, drivers had to manually adjust the broom speed and brush pattern to make sure the device flicked the snow off the ground. Today's units have computers to make those same minute adjustments. In addition, built-in diagnostics alert drivers visually and audibly when problems arise and a simple, yet positive, steering system ensures that the broom follows the plow path - especially on turns.

Using 12 trucks in angle formation with snowblowers interspersed among the trucks allows Denver to quickly move snow from one side of the runway to the other and then completely off, notes Tom Carle, regional sales manager for Oshkosh Truck Corporation.

Operating multi-function equipment really is no more difficult, says Carle, but it does require thorough training. An advantage to multi-function snow removal equipment is that it takes fewer people to operate. One driver can often replace two or three, he says.

Multi-function equipment can, however, present storage challenges. Some of the bigger units are too long for most airport storage facilities.

According to Carle, pressure from airlines and the traveling public to keep runways open often leads airports to spend more money on powerful, high-tech equipment. "Rather than having 40 minutes to clear a runway, airport operations staffs often have only a 20-minute window," he explains. "They must get out and get the job done faster than ever."

The airport also selected 16 Boschung multi-function trucks that plow and broom snow, airblast the residue and then apply sand or deicing solution - all at 30 mph. In plowing mode, the truck "bulldozes" snow with a blade that's 5 feet tall and 28 feet wide.

Ameture photographer Dave Radomski captured these shots of Denver International from a helicopter just after the pre-holiday blizzard of 2006.  Much of Frontier Arlines' fleet was stuck overnight at Concourse A.

Dale Lagerholm, director of snow and ice for Boschung supplier SES, notes that the European equipment is designed to battle snow in the Alps. Each unit's $900,000 price tag is worth the investment, he says, because of its multi-purpose and year-round functions. In summer, the trucks can be used to vacuum rubber from runways.

For a 30% increase in equipment cost, Lagerholm says, airports can eliminate three employees, six engines and run the truck year-round. Multi-function equipment also reduces the number of vehicles on the runway at the same time.

All the functions of the Boschung trucks are contained within a single 40-foot chassis that also offers all-wheel drive and all-wheel steering. This, say company officials, allows it to turn in half the space other multi-function vehicles require. It can also be stored in standard facilities.

The Boschung equipment is also designed as an integrated unit, not as a trailer pulled behind a truck. That, says Lagerholm, makes the unit more powerful. Towing a trailer ads resistance that takes away from the engine's horsepower for snow-fighting capabilities, he explains.

GPS units on the Boschung equipment allow Denver to track the trucks online and verify whether they are brooming, plowing or deicing. According to Lagerholm, such extra capabilities do not compromise the truck's reliability. Another airport, he says, has operated the machine for seven years with only one down day. It occurred after the driver hit a curb with the plow at 35 mph. Replacement parts were provided within a day, he adds.

Learning from the Past

Looking back, Kinney says it was probably a good thing that he was so new to the job when the historic 2006 storm hit. That way, he wasn't bound to any traditional approaches or sacred cow procedures.

He has even managed to find a few benefits in the difficult experience. "It keeps us really humble," he says. "It's also a wonderful opportunity for other airports to learn from our mistake. After all, if the big Denver airport, which thought its snow removal program was modern and up-to-date, can be devastated by an unexpected snowstorm, what does that mean for smaller facilities that don't have the resources in equipment and staff that we do?

"The national air transportation system is unique," he adds. "Airports are, at times, competitors. But, we are all in the game to make the system better."

He and Denver International are doing their part by allowing other airports to benefit from their hard-learned lessons.


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