Washington Dulles Continues to Brace for Winter Storms

Washington Dulles Continues to Brace for Winter Storms
Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

Washington, D.C. is experiencing an especially mild winter this year. In fact, it is on track to be the fifth warmest on record for the past 150 years. (Fingers crossed, it doesn’t prove to be a jinx.)

Even though it has had far fewer Nor’easters and blizzards to contend with, Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) isn’t letting down its guard. Steve Settle, IAD’s former runway snow team manager, is keeping airport resources en pointe to deal with whatever Mother Nature has up her sleeve.  

United Airlines is also intent on helping its hub location of 30+ years run safely in challenging winter weather. “Sometimes we are right on that ice line and we can see very difficult weather patterns,” explains Rachel Shaw, director of Station Operations at IAD for United. “An ever-so slight shift in a storm system track can change our forecast drastically.” 


Project: Winter Storm Preparation/Snow Removal

Location: Washington Dulles Int’l Airport 

Guiding Philosophies: Keep calm during severe storms; allow staff & contractors ample time to arrive onsite before a storm hits; assess surface temps, snowfall rates, expected duration to determine appropriate response level; remain flexible with changing weather conditions

Landside Contractor: Top Dog Services of Olney, MD

Airside Contractor for United Airlines: Top Dog Services of Olney, MD

Gates Covered: 82

Key Equipment: 32 John Deere loaders; 4 Superior sweepers; 3 Stewart & Stevenson brooms; 3 Trecan 135-PDs Snowmelters

Guiding Philosophies: Rotate equipment regularly to prevent mechanical problems; don’t get shorthanded for crew members; expect the unexpected

Todd Dickerson, president of Top Dog Services in Olney, MD, is well-aquainted with the unpredicatable nature of D.C. weather. His crews have provided landside snow removal and ice control services at IAD for more than 20 years. And four years ago, Top Dog also became United’s contractor of choice after crews assisted in a pinch when a storm dumped 33 inches of snow on the airport in less than 24 hours. 

Over the years, Top Dog has evolved the processes and technology it leverages to clear the 82 gates United uses at IAD. Collectively, the United gates accommodate 250 flights/21,000 passengers each day. 

“We swing with the wind,” says Dickerson. “But you never really know during each winter what you’re going to get.” 

Mobilizing the Forces

Settle notes that determining a start time for response efforts is often a challenge because many employees live to the west and south of IAD, and have substantial commutes. Unfortunately, local weather patterns also typically come from those directions. 

To allow enough time for employees and contractors to arrive onsite, the airport usually sets a snow-event start time three to four hours before a given storm is expected to hit. The predicted snowfall then triggers its level of response. 

“Airport operators have to look hard at surface temps, snowfall rates, expected duration, and then pick the right response,” Settle explains. 

He offers some examples: 

  • For 1.5 inches of snow with temperatures in the upper 20s, starting at 6 p.m. and ending by midnight, IAD issues a full recall for landside areas, which means all truck and parking lots have full coverage. It also activates an intermediate-level response for airside surfaces with three deicing trucks, 12 multi-function units, four rotary blowers, two supervisor trucks, four mechanics on standby and two solid material spreaders—with one shift of drivers covering the entire event. 
  • For up to 3 inches of snow in less than 10 hours, a “Level 10” is triggered, with landside and airside operations needing full teams. The airfield response is upgraded to a complete runway response team with up to 50 drivers and 10 mechanics for equipment support. They are split into two teams, so one group can rest while the other works. 

“The biggest challenge is when we are in the middle of a smaller event and the forecast changes so drastically that we have to go into a full recall,” says Settle. This has happened only a few times in the last decade; but the first time it happened, supervisors found it difficult to keep assigned teams together. “It was a total nightmare,” recalls Settle. “We now assign a supervisor to place the drivers in the equipment and make the team operating on the runway whole. Once this is accomplished, they then turn their attention to the others that have arrived.” 

As a private contractor, Dickerson prefers to over-staff during a storm, and notes that local farmers and police/fire employees are happy to supplement Top Dogs’ regular crews when the need arises. The company provides an on-site bunkhouse so equipment operators can rest between shifts. It also houses and feeds crews at a nearby hotel. “If these guys need a break, all they have to do is wave; and within a very short time, they’re relieved,” says Dickerson. “But our performance does not slow down.” 

United appreciates Dickerson’s strategy. Shaw notes that planning with Top Dog begins three to five days before a winter storm is due to arrive; and constant partnership occurs until the weather front has passed. 

“Through coordination with our vendors, we make sure our commitment to our customers is at the heart of everything we do,” she says. 

Technology Matters

Dickerson notes that telematics (using GPS and onboard diagnostics to monitor equipment movement and performance) has made a tremendous positive impact on the efficiency of Top Dogs’ services at IAD, especially when clearing gates and ramp surfaces for United.  

“This is a relatively new thing for us,” says Shaw. “We do like it, because it allows us to have a bird’s-eye view of where every piece of equipment is on the field, and we can tell Top Dog where we need additional assistance.” 

It also helps coordinate aircraft movement relative to snow removal efforts, which improves safety for staff and optimizes the passenger experience, she adds.

Top Dog remotely monitors all of its John Deere loaders, Stewart & Stevenson brooms, and Trecan Snowmelters. So it can, for instance, pinpoint why an individual machine is burning more fuel or running at a higher RPM. Dickerson notes that it is especially important to monitor fuel filters on melting machines due to the cold temperatures they operate in. “I’ve seen gel issues with diesel fuel,” he explains. 

“They are ahead of the game,” Dickerson says of Trecan’s telematic technology. “With the emissions controls on the units, we can stay at a high burn rate and level of efficiency.” 

Terry Dwyer, North American sales manager for Trecan Combustion Ltd., enthusiastically agrees that the equipment can save airports time and money. 

Top Dog uses three Trecan 135-PD Snowmelters at IAD, which can melt 135 tons of snow per hour. “That’s perfect for that size airport,” says Dwyer. 

To other airports interested in the equipment, he says: “Look at the size of your facility and the weather patterns the last few years, and you can get a good handle on the size you’ll need.” 

Orders for the specialized machines require six months or more lead-time, and airports need qualified personnel to operate them, adds Dwyer.

Shaw says that snow melting machines are instrumental in keeping United’s gates open and flights in the air. Top Dog stages the equipment strategically, so crews can push snow from one end of the terminal to the other, and divide it between the gates. 

“Doing it this way versus piling up snow every third or fourth gate makes our ramp a lot cleaner and safer, and it’s easier for employees to get in and out,” Shaw explains. 

One Step Ahead of the Storm

Dickerson rotates equipment every few years to stave off mechanical issues. “We don’t have time for breakdowns and lost hours when it’s time to work,” he emphasizes. “When it’s time to go, we have to go. In D.C., we might only get five large storms a year; but we need to be ready each time.” 

He recalls a particularly rough 10-inch snow storm last winter: “Many times, it will hit us, go to New York City and then right back into the D.C. area; and that’s exactly what happened. The second wave brought 7 inches, and United Airlines gave us a time they wanted to be back open by.” 

Using its tech-forward equipment, Top Dog beat the deadline by two hours. 

Shaw says that Top Dog’s impressive snow management efforts were just another part of the “new United,” which is more focused than ever on commitments to its customers. “These are innovations and improvements designed to help build a great experience for every customer, every flight, every day,” she explains. “We talk all the time and try to build relationships with our vendors to make them feel they are part of the United family.” 

And speaking of family, Dickerson notes that a strong relationship with Top Dog’s John Deere equipment supplier also helps IAD manage winter weather challenges. The dealer supplies John Deere-certified mechanics during major storms; so if equipment goes down, service can be provided immediately.

More Lessons to Learn

When it comes to winter weather, “expect the unexpected,” advises Dickerson.

Dwyer agrees, adding that it’s impossible to understate the value of being prepared. “It all comes down to time and money,” he says. “With people spending $100,000 to truck snow out, having an insurance policy (like Snowmelters) is a very smart thing to do. It might be an easy January, but February might bring a snow bomb. With the right equipment, you’re covered. You won’t be scrambling, which is when the damage starts.” 

IAD’s Settle reminds other airports to use sound judgment when planning for winter storms. “Don’t panic; try to keep calm,” he counsels. “I have been in events where it went from snow to ice, and cooler heads prevail every time.”

“Knee-jerk reactions cause problems,” he adds. “And since we’re at the bottom of the Snowbelt, we have to plan accordingly.”  

This approach, plus strong partnerships with airlines and contractors, will undoubtedly help IAD continue to navigate D.C.’s unpredicatable winters—and learn new lessons along the way. 


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