New Snow Removal Equipment & Procedures Pay Off at Indianapolis Int'l

Dan Vnuk
Published in: 

It’s almost as if Indianapolis International Airport (IND) was tipped off that this would be a particularly harsh winter in the Midwest. Last summer, the airport completely revised its winter operations by implementing new procedures, taking delivery of millions of dollars in new snow removal equipment and presenting a new curriculum of crew training.

When winter hit, IND was ready to test its new game plan. And what a test it was. Seemingly endless weeks of heavy snowfalls were followed by brutal sub-freezing temperatures. By mid-February, the airport had received more than 51 inches of snow, surpassing its previous snowfall record with plenty of winter still ahead.


Project: Overhaul of Winter Operations Strategy
Location: Indianapolis Int’l Airport
Plan Specifics: Shift from separate plow & broom vehicles to multi-function equipment; update crew procedures & training
Total Cost: $5.5 million
New Equipment: 9 MB5s
Manufacturer: M-B Companies
Anticipated Labor Savings: $300,000/yr.
2012 Traffic: 7.3 million passengers; 2 billion lbs. of cargo
Carriers: 8 major passenger airlines; second-largest FedEx operation in the world
Of Note: No weather-related closures since 1978

Have the changes and investments paid off? The answer is a resounding “yes” from Michael Medvescek, senior director of Operations for the Indianapolis Airport Authority. “In late December 2013, the equipment, operators and plans were really put to the test when we were on the receiving end of 12 inches of snow with 5-foot drifts,” recalls Medvescek, C.M., ACE. “The weather event was one for the record books, but we were able to keep two of our three runways open. If it wasn’t for the new units and highly skilled drivers, we would not have been able to keep the airport open. Their speed, power and reliability were the keys to our success.”

“We can plow much faster,” he continues, reporting that crews now clear a two-mile long runway, edge-to-edge, in 12 minutes. Clearing the same area used to take 25 to 30 minutes. “We can still produce 7-foot tall windrows, but do it twice as fast as before,” he notes.

On the labor front, the airport expects to save $300,000 per year without having to cut staff. This winter, it saved even more, reports Medvescek. “The manpower savings were really eye-opening,” he reflects, explaining that the airport previously used contractors to plow non-movement areas. “We are no longer paying outside crews $240 an hour overtime for waiting around. Now, we can use our own crews, who are already FAA- and TSA-approved, who are more efficient.”

Located near downtown Indianapolis, IND averages 138 daily flights to 34 nonstop destinations for eight major airlines. In 2012, it served approximately 7.3 million passengers. It’s also the eighth largest cargo center in the United States and is the home of the second-largest FedEx operation in the world. More than 2 billion pounds of cargo were managed at the airport in 2012, making it an important catalyst for economic development in central Indiana and the Midwest. One of the first new U.S. airports to open since 9/11, IND cut the ribbon to its new 1.2 million square foot airport complex in November 2008.

Planning for Success

With 25 years in airport operations, Medvescek has seen plenty of winters come and go. He’s also been on the frontline of snow and ice removal efforts that have worked and some that have failed. Given his tenure and firsthand experience, Medvescek knew he could make significant improvements to IND’s winter operations if given the budget and opportunity to select the right equipment. It’s been said that failure to plan is a “plan for failure,” and he was intent on avoiding that fate.

“First, I sought advice on what works best from other airports like ORD and MKE that experience snowy winters,” he relates. “Then, I had to lobby the airport authority board for funding.” 

Medvescek crafted a strategic plan that required $5.5 million to enact and is projected to reduce expenses 40% over the next 10 years. “What ‘sold’ them is the anticipated cost savings, which are pretty dramatic because we would use fewer pieces of machinery, burn less fuel with less pollution, deploy our operators more efficiently and no longer rely on outside contractors,” he explains.

Increased safety for airport workers, airline crews and passengers was the biggest factor that helped secure approval from both the airport authority and IND’s carriers, he adds.   

“The complete change in winter ops couldn’t have come at a better, or worse, time — depending on how you look at things,” reflects Medvescek. “So far this winter, we have had 33 inches of snow on the ground, with an average of 24 inches, plus bitter cold weather. We have had 18 inches over a 24-hour period. However, we are able to learn something new after each event.”

Equipment & Labor Changes

Switching to multi-function vehicles — MB5s from M-B  Companies — allowed IND to nearly cut its fleet in half, from 16 pieces of equipment to nine, and reduce its fuel consumption accordingly. Some of the older equipment was retained for off-ramp plowing; other airports quickly snapped up the rest.

Previously, IND’s main fleet included dedicated plows and front-mounted brooms. Now, the brooms and plows are combined in one unit, so there are fewer pieces of machinery operating in movement areas. The fundamental equipment shift provides an important safety enhancement on runways, taxiways and in other key areas, emphasizes Medvescek. “There’s less chance for human error, less operator fatigue and, frankly, it’s easier on me, who has to call the shots, as well,” he explains.

Purchasing nine units from the same manufacturer and outfitting them with the same options makes things easier on drivers and mechanics alike, notes Medvescek. The airport now keeps fewer spare parts in inventory and can purchase filters and other preventive maintenance items in bulk at a discount. He also likes that MB products are built of 95% American-made components. “There’s no waiting for parts, and they use Cat engines and Allison transmissions; so we can get parts overnight or even source them locally should we need them,” he explains.

With an extra-tough winter for their initial tests, the units are eliciting positive reviews from IND personnel. “The MB equipment has been designed with efficiency and safety in mind, reducing operator fatigue. This is vital to airport operations, as our crews work a 12-hour shift,” says Medvescek. “The cab is well designed, with good visibility and intuitive controls. So far, I’ve received only positive comments from the staff, with the main one being less tedium during the shift.”

Summertime Sessions

Realizing that the new broom/plow vehicles would be more advanced, and much more computerized, than IND’s previous equipment, Medvescek included a “heavy training regimen” in the bid specifications for the new fleet. M-B Companies provided five days of onsite training for both operators and mechanics, accordingly. By requiring multiple days of manufacturer training, IND ensured that airport employees could be trained over all three of its shifts and eliminated the need to pay overtime for training.

Sessions were held last summer, when the nine new vehicles were delivered. “While we didn’t have winter-like conditions, we had some foggy days with poor visibility,” Medvescek recalls. “The drivers learned how to listen to the radio and follow the tail lights of the unit in front of them.”

He likens the practices to a synchronized swim team, with the plows traveling up and down the airfield in unison, making coordinated turns and stops. “It’s an impressive operation to witness,” he reflects.
Medvescek is often proud of his crews and admires their willingness to battle extremely cold conditions with winds up to 30 knots and zero visibility. He considers it a noteworthy accomplishment that the airport has not closed for a weather event since the blizzard of 1978.

It’s vital to keep at least two of the IND’s three runways open at all times for passenger and cargo carriers, he adds. “FedEx is now 50 percent of landing fees, and they use ‘heavies,” he explains. “The company appreciates our record of keeping the airport open, because if their packages don’t get where they are going overnight, it presents a negative impression on our airport and FedEx as a key business partner.

“The flying public and our staff deserve the safest operation possible. We believe we have the equipment to produce great results.”


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