Despite Mild Winter, O'Hare Flexes its Snow Ops Muscle

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

As one of the busiest airports in the country, operations at O'Hare International (ORD) can impact the entire air traffic system. Even during unpredictable winter weather, it's vital for the large Chicago hub to run safely and smoothly. Thanks to its award-winning operations team, ORD continues to meet the challenges that roll in with the Windy City's winter storms.

"Outside of blizzard conditions, we try to maintain everything as if it was a blue sky, sunny day," says Bill Palivos, deputy commissioner, airside operations for the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA).

The strategy has proved effective: ORD is a seven-time winner of the Balchen/Post Award for outstanding achievement in airport snow and ice control. Sponsored by the Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives, the annual awards are presented at the International Aviation Snow Symposium. Last year, LaGuardia Airport and Boston Logan International Airport snagged top honors in the large commercial category and ORD won honorable mention.

Seasonal Strategies

The approach taken at ORD changes throughout the year, explains Palivos. From May until November, the airport holds a daily conference call with airport stakeholders to discuss items such as construction and weather that might impact airfield operations. Beginning in November, the airport switches to twice-daily conference calls through April.


Project: Snow & Ice Removal

Location: O'Hare Int'l Airport

Total Pavement: 55 million sq. ft.

Runways: 13 miles

Taxiways: 52 miles

Hold Pads, Hard Stands & Ramp Areas: 20 million sq. ft.

Typical Winter Operations: 2,300/day

Average Annual Snowfall: 38 inches

Deicer Used: 1.6 million gal/winter

Salt Used: 13,000 tons/winter

Sand Used: 400 tons/winter

Snow Removal Fleet: 223 pieces

Equipment Manufacturers: Airport Technologies, Boschung, Cryotech Deicing Technology, M-B Companies, Old World Industries, Oshkosh, Vammas, Wausau Equipment Co.

Weather Sources: Chicago Department of Aviation's color radar systems Telvent/DTN & weather sequence reporting computers, Data Transmission Network Corp. Telvent/DTN, Murray & Trettel meteorological weather services, National Weather Service, United Airlines Weather Center, Vaisala Scan Cast System

An initial 1 p.m. call allows Palivos and his team to disseminate weather-related information to help various airport factions prepare for predicted weather. Another conference call often occurs at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., but the time varies depending on when the back end of any given winter storm blows through, Palivos notes. Using weather briefings from multiple sources, the airport prepares everyone for the start time, amount of snow expected, support equipment necessary to fight the storm and anticipated duration of cleanup.

Stakeholders on the conference calls include the public relations team, landside and facilities staff, finance department personnel and concessions partners, who may have to adjust operating times and stock up on supplies to accommodate delayed passengers. Including personnel from the finance department helps them know what size bill to expect based on the size of the storm being discussed, explains Palivos.

If two or more inches of snow are expected, airline representatives are also invited into the operations office, located in the airport's former FAA tower. "They're next to us, listening to what we're opening, closing, and what our plans are as to what we're going to clean next," says Palivos.

Coordination between airline and airport personnel helped keep long-haul traffic moving during a weather event in early January that brought 4.9 inches of snow. Palivos's team was about to close ORD's longest runway for cleaning right before two flights full of fuel and passengers bound for the Asian Pacific Rim were ready to depart. Without compromising safety, the airline was able to work with the operations team and tower to allow those flights to depart before the runway closed.

"We have a team of (operations) people in the control tower working with the traffic management people from the tower," Palivos explains. "So we can call those folks, tell them to wait until we get those two aircraft out, and then behind it we'll clean the runway - without compromising safety, of course."

In preparation for another mid-January storm expected to bring three to seven inches of snow within a 24-hour period, Palivos estimated ORD would have about 170 pieces of equipment and people working airside and landside to keep the airport open. "We'll have three runway teams, a couple of taxiway teams and then deicers to get it down to pavement if need be," he says. Because it was expected to be a dry snow, Palivos predicted the airport would mostly use plows and brooms to clear the airfield.

Winter Reinforcements

CDA employs approximately 200 year-round crewmembers who are trained on all of the airport's equipment. Between November and April, it supplements this force with another 200 city employees who typically perform "summer jobs" like filling potholes. On top of that, CDA contracts another 500 workers for clearing gate areas. Like the full-time airport employees, city and contract employees also undergo FAA Part 139 training.

ORD's Snow Removal Directive provides an overview of the procedures used in snow removal operations on the airfield, including snow alert examples, personnel requirements and equipment team requirements based on severity of the weather event.

Clearing Concrete

Currently, ORD's snow removal fleet includes 223 pieces of equipment - everything from deicers, three-in-ones, plows and blowers to fuel tankers, sanders, sodium formate equipment and salt trucks.

"We're trying to give them as much concrete as we can," Palivos says. "The wind, the rate of snowfall certainly affect that, but we're operating as if we are a piece of aircraft and we're just intertwined in the operation making sure that we can actually arrive safely and depart safely anything that's still scheduled."

In addition to keeping airside pavement operational, Palivos' crews also clear several hundred parking spaces, which generate more than $100 million of annual revenue. In total, ORD has approximately 55 million square feet of pavement - and that is growing, Palivos adds.

Blowing Away Previous Standards

Even before recent enhancements, Palivos was a major fan of the three-in-one. "Realistically, that's the greatest piece of equipment that has changed how we do things," he says, noting that the combination plow/blower/broom cut crews' runway occupancy time by several minutes. "(It) threw us into a different age," he raves.

That said, Palivos was not content with the snow blowing attributes of the multi-tasking equipment. The blowers, which he describes as "archaic," simply could not keep up with the unit's other elements. "They were designed to go 5 to 10 mph, and the other pieces are going 25 to 30 mph," he explains. "And the capacity wasn't as great, so you had to use quite a few of them in a team to eject the snow off the runway."

In order to improve runway clearing times, CDA challenged vendors to create a machine that could travel 25 to 30 mph with a blower capacity of 7,500 tons per hour. Wisconsin-based Wausau Equipment Company won the bid.

"What the city of Chicago was asking for in this contract was not readily available to them as an existing design," notes Chuck Reichwald, senior product manager with Wausau Equipment. Instead, the firm laid out concepts and prototypes and worked with the airport to design a piece of equipment to meet ORD's needs.

"They were very open about what they need to do and what they needed to accomplish and why they were not able to accomplish that with their present equipment," Reichwald recalls.

"In a high-speed snow removal team, you're only as fast as your slowest piece of equipment," he adds. "Their snow blowers were bogging down the operational time of the complete high-speed team."

Input from ORD was crucial during the product development cycle, notes Reichwald.

A prototype of the Wausau BAB High Speed Runway Snow Blower with SnoDozer Severe-Duty Chassis was finished in early January 2011, but it was produced for the company's own testing purposes. The first unit for CDA was scheduled to come off its assembly line later that month. But predictions of a brutal storm in an otherwise relatively mild winter blew Wausau's schedule out the window.

A blizzard forecasted to hit Chicago with more than 20 inches of snow and high winds prompted airport officials to ask Wausau for early delivery - even though the equipment had yet to go through the company's normal quality checks. The high-speed blower designed to move at least 7,500 tons of snow per hour, with a casting distance of 75 feet to 150 feet at 30 mph, was urgently needed for the impending storm.

"We explained to them where we were at with it, and that it was not ready to be delivered," Reichwald recalls. "At the same time, we offered to bring in our prototype demonstrator unit so they could at least get access to the design going into the blizzard."

In the end, however, Wausau delivered both units on the eve of the blizzard, giving ORD its first taste of the new equipment. "Over the course of the next two weeks, they used those units to reopen and to move all of the snow they had to deal with," Reichwald recalls.

The equipment worked well during the blizzard, Palivos reports, and ORD crews suggested possible enhancements to the unit, including higher placement of brake lights for better visibility. They also requested the addition of a small walkway between the blower head and windshield for mechanics servicing the equipment.

"Customer input is very important to us," Reichwald relates. "Through that immediate use in that very desperate situation, they came up with a list of items we could incorporate to improve the product."

In the months after the storm, teams from ORD and Wausau met to review the list.

According to Reichwald, such collaboration is key to Wausau's business. "As engineers and manufacturers of equipment, we don't always have a good handle on how the product is being used and what needs to be accomplished with the product," he explains. "Even with all of our research, sometimes we don't hit the bull's eye. When we can develop a product hand-in-hand with several of our customers, we can do a better job of honing in on meeting their needs ... If it meets their needs, they're going to buy it and tell everyone else how good it is."

The talk has apparently begun. Reichwald attributes a recent order from John F. Kennedy International Airport for three BAB High Speed Runway Snow Blowers with the SnoDozer Severe-Duty Chassis to Wausau's experience at ORD last winter.

CDA expects to take delivery of all 13 of its contracted units by mid-February.

After the Storm

Because of the unpredictability of winter weather, Palivos says he and his team always prepare for the worst. But a snow event the size of the February 2011 blizzard would challenge any airport, he adds. During that memorable storm, ORD pressed the equipment maintenance crews usually use to cut grass and trim trees into double duty by using its box-blade plow and mini blower to fight the snowstorm. Because wind and drifting were a big part of the blizzard, the enclosed-cab Holland equipment was put to work cleaning lights and signs, which saved electricians from having to dig them out by hand. "This was a lot quicker and obviously a lot more humane," notes Palivos.

During the 2011-2012 snow season, the tractors are also being used to clear the fire equipment pad as well as service roads that experience wind rolls created by the snow teams working on taxiways. The new uses maximize the equipment's value by using it in summer and winter, Palivos notes.

Cooperation and foresight of its airlines, which suspended operations the evening of the impending storm until the following day, also helped ORD weather the storm. "Twenty-four hours after the last snowflake hit the ground, we were operational," Palivos reports. "The preemptive cancellations really helped us out."

During a more recent snowstorm in January, ORD's two major airlines - American and United - cancelled approximately 25% of their flights. Collectively, the carriers account for about 85% of ORD's traffic. The airlines' cooperation was again a major help to the operations teams working to clear the pavement.


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