Vancouver Int’l Turns Untimely Winter Storms Into Opportunity for Improvement

Vancouver Int’l Turns Untimely Winter Storms Into Opportunity for Improvement
Paul Nolan
Published in: 

Staff members at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in British Columbia refer to the experience almost cryptically as “the Four Days in December.” And it’s as ominous as it sounds.

A mix of snow, freezing rain, low temperatures and fog arrived in waves over four crucial holiday travel days in December 2022, resulting in the cancellation of 1,300 flights and disrupting travel for more than 180,000 passengers.

“We’ve had more snow at the airport in our history, but we haven’t had it on the busiest four days of the calendar year,” says YVR President and Chief Executive Officer Tamara Vrooman. The first storm hit on Dec. 18, followed by even more significant snowfall the day after, and a third major weather band the morning of Dec. 23.


Project: Snow Removal Review & Action Plan

Location: Vancouver Int’l Airport (in BC)

Catalyst: Severe storms during busy Dec. 2022 holiday travel season

2022 Aircraft Movements: 230,162

2022 Passenger Volume: 19 million

Weather Factors: Combination of snow, freezing rain, low temperatures & fog arriving in waves over 7 busiest travel days of the year

Operational Impact: 1,300 of approx. 4,100 flights scheduled Dec. 18-24 were cancelled; 180,000+ passengers affected

Response: Comprehensive report & action plan with 130 steps to improve winter & irregular operations response and improve passenger communication

Assisting Contractor: Arup (global consulting firm)

Snow Removal Equipment Supplier: Øveraasen

Equipment Dealer: Team Eagle Ltd.

Hold Time Calculating System: SureWx

After-Event Survey of Passengers & General Public: Kirk & Co.

Passengers on 24 aircraft waited more than four hours on the tarmac due to a lack of available gates. Passengers on one flight arriving from Hawaii were stranded on the tarmac for 13 hours because no gate was available. High winds and blowing snow prevented deployment of airstairs or remote stands.

“I am not going to sugar-coat it. It was not our finest hour. Our safety promise was kept. Our customer service commitment was not,” Vrooman stated in a letter that prefaces the 32-page report and action plan created after an extensive review of the trying situation. 

Learning Opportunity

If necessity is the mother of invention, it also can be said that adversity is the mother of education. In the words of self-help author Napoleon Hill, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

“Every organization experiences failures of some kind,” Vrooman reflects. “The question is not whether you’re going to fail or not; the most important question is what you will do after.”

Within one week of the “Four Days” saga, YVR leaders initiated a comprehensive after-action review of the separate incidents that collectively caused a less-than-stellar performance. The key objective: to identify all areas that contributed to the breakdown in service and identify solutions to prevent similar failures from occurring in the future.

The airport enlisted the assistance of Arup, a global professional services firm with specific aviation experience, to lead an after-action review with assistance from Airports Council International.

“I was impressed by the airport’s proactiveness from our earliest conversations,” recalls Kerri Knox, an associate advisor with Arup and lead investigator for the YVR project. When the firm was hired in February 2023, airport personnel already had completed multiple reviews internally and with their airline partners to analyze the weather incident and develop next steps for improvement.

Knox has a personal background in mission-critical operations, and her master’s degree studies focused on emergency and disaster management in business environments. “The airport brought us on board for a wider lens to make sure they weren’t missing anything,” she explains.

Consulting All Parties

Vrooman notes that it was critical to review all aspects of operations to determine where breakdowns occurred, and to involve all entities operating at the airport. Naturally, that was a huge group, including snow removal and maintenance workers, directors of the aircraft rescue and firefighting unit, and airport communications personnel, as well as outside entities such as commercial airline partners, cargo carriers, weather monitoring service personnel, government agencies, contracted maintenance partners and officials at regional airports that serve YVR and were impacted by the winter disruption.

The airport also conducted a public engagement program to hear directly from affected passengers and the general public. That effort was undertaken by Kirk & Co., a communications consultant with offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.

The final YVR Report and Action Plan:

  • established a timeline of environmental conditions, decisions, activities, communication and actions;
  • identified specific impacts;
  • reviewed and identified gaps between regulations, policies, plans, procedures and directives applicable to the actual event and YVR’s response;
  • analyzed the performance and service level of staff; and
  • chronicled what worked, what didn’t, and the various reasons why.

Overall, the 2022 December holiday season was tumultuous for airports across North America. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, commercial airlines canceled 5.4% of their scheduled domestic flights (compared to 1.1% the previous month).

To Vrooman’s knowledge, YVR is the only Canadian airport that completed an after-action review following the challenging month.

Multi-Discipline Response

Not surprisingly, the after-action review didn’t find a singular root cause for the storm-induced operational challenges; it cited the confluence of several different complex factors. “The heart of the event and the severe disruption that followed was essentially a case of passenger and aircraft demand exceeding processing capacity due to winter weather conditions at YVR,” states the official Report and Action Plan.

In 2023, the YVR promptly invested more than $40 million in winter weather equipment, deicing fluid storage, real-time weather monitoring equipment, staff additions and increased training. Moreover, airport leaders generated 130 action steps in four key areas:

  • Enhancing winter and irregular operations plans — This included purchasing additional snow removal and weather monitoring equipment, as well as implementing new gate protocols designed to ensure that arriving aircraft can deplane passengers within 30 minutes of taxiing from the runway.
  • Enhancing cross-team collaboration — YVR established a dedicated team with members across the Airport Authority and airport partners to provide more information and data sharing, collaboration and decision-making between key members of the airport ecosystem.
  • Accelerating investments in technology and data — This includes a digital apron management tool to better prioritize aircraft handling services, and the improved ability to track delayed baggage. YVR partnered with SureWx to install its holdover time calculating technology in the infield between the north and south runways. This allows subscribed airlines to understand the impact weather is having on departure times.
  • Enhancing communication to passengers and the public — During the snow incident, stranded travelers were frustrated by a lack of information about their flights and luggage; and the updates they did receive changed frequently. YVR added specially trained staff to support travelers directly, and implemented new ways to provide updates and information. The airport also refined the use of its website and now leverages stakeholders and other partners to provide the general public with more reliable, consistent updates.

Bolstering the Fleet

Vrooman says that YVR was well equipped for maintaining operations during winter weather events before the “Four Days” incident, but some of the problems that contributed to delays shed light on additional equipment that could improve its snow removal capabilities.

Last June, the airport ordered seven new pieces of Øveraasen snow removal equipment from Canadian-based dealer Team Eagle Ltd. One of the seven is currently in operation, and the rest due for delivery later this year. All of the units include Fleet Cloud, Øveraasen’s cloud-based system for advanced planning, monitoring and detailed operation analysis.

The pending order includes four compact sweepers that can operate autonomously. They were selected for clearing tight spaces such as taxiways and aprons because the after-incident review revealed that baggage handlers had difficulty operating due to snow-covered aprons.

“While runways and taxiways were kept clear, snow clearing efforts in other areas of the airfield, such as access to airline hangars and aprons, were sometimes delayed and inconsistent,” the report stated. “Snow removal priority on aprons was focused on clearing the lead-in lines that pilots and ground crews rely on to properly position aircraft at gates. However, this did not prioritize clearing the service side (right side) of aircraft that ground handlers need to access the aircraft more easily for baggage loading/unloading.”

Deicing aircraft during the rapidly changing weather incident in late 2022 was challenging, to say the least. Afterward, the airport increased its glycol storage and enhanced operational efficiency by adding two more tanks closer to the airfield. The new tanks more than double the airport’s previous storage capacity and minimize the need to truck in more deicer during snow events, which can slow delivery to aircraft. Vrooman reports that YVR never ran out of glycol during the “Four Days in December” event, but the supply of deicing fluid in airfield storage units was quickly depleted, and replenishing it from units farther from the runways took too long.

The airport increased deicing efficiency by adding two more glycol storage tanks closer to the airfield.

Keeping Customers Informed

More efficient snow removal and effective gate management were big lessons culled from the after-action report, but Vrooman considers the need for improved communication with travelers an equally important takeaway.

“The terminal became heavily congested with passengers remaining at the airport, and the information available to those passengers was inaccurate and inconsistent,” the report states. Airlines struggled to keep public-facing flight information up to date. Because Airport Authority personnel were not updated on flight cancellations, information displays in the terminal and on the airport website often indicated flights were delayed instead of canceled.

Responses from a survey of the general public and travelers who were personally involved in the extreme weather event indicated improved communication with flying customers was essential.

Vrooman explains it this way: The public understood that aviation is a complex ecosystem involving many players; but at the end of the day, they don’t really care much about that. They still want one voice that can provide up-to-date information so they can adjust accordingly.

A lack of effective and timely communication, excessive tarmac delays, extended airport stays, baggage issues and a lack of adequate in-person support were the biggest issues identified in the public engagement survey results.

Action steps identified to address customer communication issues include augmenting the airport’s flight information display system with additional publicly available data feeds such as FlightAware. That way, the airport will not have to rely on manual updates of flight information.

The airport created an enhanced Irregular Operations Communications Group (IOCG) that will be activated during major weather and other disruptive events. The new group includes representatives from the Airport Authority, airlines, government agencies, emergency services and other partners. It will establish agreed protocols for coordinated information sharing across the group to provide accurate and systematically updated information to the public and passengers, as well as coordinated amplification of that messaging across partner networks.

In addition, YVR committed to identifying and training 25% more employees to support passengers in the terminal during future weather events. The goal is to ensure all information counters and busy checkpoints are fully staffed when passengers need them most.

The airport has implemented a dedicated resource hub on its website that will be activated during major events and supported by social media. This new communication tool provides key updates about operating status, information about getting to and from the airport, details about accessibility services, relevant contact information and answers to frequently asked questions.

Broader Takeaways

While the “Four Days” incident and subsequent review generated specific action steps for YVR, it also revealed broader insights and reinforced some existing knowledge.

When asked if Arup uncovered any surprises in its third-party review of the airport’s performance, Kerri Knox says, “It wasn’t a surprise as much as a good reminder about how important it is to have a robust data capture plan. Oftentimes, in an interruption or an incident, notes or decision inputs and outputs are not captured thoroughly. YVR was comprehensive in their data capture, so there was a lot to go through.”

For its part, the airport determined that even more data capture is needed going forward. Investments in additional technology following the severe weather event will allow the airport to:

  • monitor weather forecasts more closely and precisely;
  • track on-ground aircraft movements to help enforce new gate protocols; and
  • measure and track passenger flow more precisely to help ensure efficient movement and identify when staffing adjustments are necessary.

The incident also reinforced the importance of regularly reviewing and practicing emergency plans, even though such exercises are mandated by FAA and other public agencies.

YVR decided to step up its practices in this area after enduring the winter 2022 storms. The airport holds quarterly training exercises, with involvement from its airline and agency partners as well as emergency response agencies. Personnel rehearse severe weather and other emergency procedures to encourage better performance.

In retrospect, Vrooman says the all-hands-on-deck response from airport employees and outside partners during the 2022 weather event reinforced the quality of the team YVR has in place—and the high standards the airport holds itself to.

“During the disruption, we had countless people from all areas of our staff volunteering to come in and help,” she recalls. “We worked with the hotel and tourism community to arrange over 400 hotel rooms, which we paid for as an airport, so people had a place to go. I’m proud of the culture of service and safety that we clearly have at the airport.” 

Supplementing the Fleet

Following storms in December 2022 that seriously disrupted service at Vancouver International Airport (YVR), the Vancouver Airport Authority invested in seven pieces of new snow removal equipment to bolster an already-impressive fleet of more than 100 units.

The British Columbia airport added the following Øveraasen equipment:

  • two TV100 snow blowers — high-speed, self-propelled units with a unique “flying cab” that allows drivers to be placed in front or back of the blower for increased visibility and a smoother, quieter working environment
  • four RSC250 compact sweepers that can operate autonomously — each vehicle has a 792-gallon spray and is designed for use on taxiways and aprons, as well as high-speed operation on runways
  • one Dammann airport liquid chemical sprayer— with a 118-foot boom and the ability to spray nearly 150 feet from side nozzles

All of the equipment was provided by Team Eagle Ltd., a North American dealer for Øveraasen.

Ben McKeown, commercial business manager for Team Eagle, notes that the European manufacturer offers an industry-best lead time of six to seven months for runway sweepers and seven to eight months for snow blowers. In addition, Øveraasen provides a three-year standard warranty (bumper-to-bumper), with multi-year extension options.

The airport recently also purchased:

  • two Raiko icebreakers,
  • six Snowdogg pickup truck snowplows,
  • two John Deere plow attachments for small tractors, and
  • one commercial sprayer for tight areas and stairs  



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