Snow/Ice Strategies for Airports Outside the Snowbelt

Mike Schwanz
Published in: 

The winter of 2013-2014 was a nasty brute. In addition to mercilessly slamming the Midwest and Northeast, it also picked on unwitting areas in the South and Southeast. Icy conditions in Atlanta led the national news for days, and snowfall records were set throughout the United States.

Airport maintenance crews accustomed to cutting grass and fixing heat-related runway cracks faced unusual amounts of winter's white stuff. Some hadn't seen a significant snowfall in years and were challenged with insufficient equipment, manpower and training. Others, however, seemed to relish the opportunity to flex their contingency plans and test their crews' mettle.

Caution Preferred

In Oklahoma, it's typical for the wind to come sweeping down the plain; but it doesn't often bring snow and sleet. That's why John Horton, airfield manager at Tulsa International Airport (TUL), prefers to err on the safe side when it comes to winter weather. "If there is even a chance of snow, we have people here," explains Horton.

TUL's maintenance staff includes 11 full-time workers. "Combo trucks" - plows that also tow brooms - reduce manpower needs, he notes.

"Our main runway, which runs north and south, has to remain open," stresses Horton. "If snow is persistent with accumulation, we will go to '30 on and 30 off.' We get the runway for 30 minutes to make a couple of passes with our snow crew convoy. Airport Ops will then check friction readings; and if we are good, we will resume normal air traffic."

Horton gives high marks to local weather forecasters and the airport's separate paid weather service. "We usually know up to 48 hours in advance about a pending storm," he relates. 

Even with reliable forecasts, freezing rain and ice storms are a challenge at TUL. Crews respond by frequently monitoring surface temperatures. "It may be freezing at one spot on the airport, and above freezing in another," Horton explains. "This happens a lot in our part of the country."

The airport's deicing truck is consequently used for corrective and preventive purposes, covering 60-foot sections of pavement in a single pass. "We try to pretreat runways and taxiways," Horton notes. "When the temperature is on the bubble, some parts of the airport will freeze, especially when the sun goes down."

While last winter was relatively typical for snow - three or four events delivering a total of about 6 inches - one ice event was especially inopportune. Freezing moisture hit the airport at 3 a.m., and the main runway immediately froze over. "We made a pass with the deicing truck - down and back on each side of the runway centerline," he recalls. "Our first flight out that morning was at around 5:30 a.m. We were able to get good friction readings in time to get them out without any delays."

Like many other airports, TUL experiences steady employee turnover in the airfield maintenance department. "We are always training people every year," he relates. "We have training every fall, which is a couple of hours long. We usually devote a morning to do that."

New plow drivers are closely supervised and usually "get the idea" by the end of a 12-hour shift, reports Horton.

When Unpredictable is Standard

The Pacific Northwest - home to King County International/Boeing Field (BFI) in Seattle - is notorious for its unpredictable weather. Fog, freezing rain and snow are all common, but most of the precipitation is cold rain. "Weather is very tough to predict here," says Raleigh Salazar, the airport's building, trades and fleet manager.

As a cargo hub for UPS and DHL, BFI has a more extensive airfield than most general aviation airports. Keeping the primary 10,000-foot north/south runway open at all times is critical, Salazar stresses.

"Here, even two hours of snow will wreak havoc," he notes. "Typically, a snowstorm may last 8 to 12 hours. And the snow can start off wet, then transition to freezing rain or turn to slush."

Sometimes, conditions vary within the airport itself. "We can get light snow at one end of the airport, and the other end will have sunshine," Salazar explains.

Beginning in late fall, BFI seeks frequent weather updates from both the National Weather Service and its private provider. "From 8 to 12 hours before a snowstorm, we put folks on standby as conditions warrant," he notes. "A duty manager monitors conditions at least every 2 hours for changes and updates."

Salazar emphasizes training - and cross training - within his crew of 17 full-time employees. "We have a multi-trade staff composed of equipment operators, utility workers, building trades and mechanics ... and all of them can perform several jobs in a snowstorm," he comments. "We invest a lot of time to train mechanics and equipment operators."

If a storm is predicted, maintenance workers know they will likely need to report several hours before the snow flies. "They are on call and have to be ready," Salazar explains. "During a long storm, we split into two teams working 12-hour shifts for coverage. Our bare minimum is to have two equipment drivers, an airport operations duty manager and a mechanic at the facility to handle a small snow event."

Last winter was fairly benign at BFI. Only two weather events required equipment, and five cases had staff on standby, he reports.

The Seattle airport doesn't always get off that easy, though. "About six years ago, we had a snowfall that lasted four days," Salazar recalls. "That was the hardest in my memory. We had to shelter people here at the airport; they couldn't get out."

Most winters, BFI receives freezing rain. "We are just south of the Puget Sound convergence zone, so we get a lot of rain and fog," Salazar explains. "However, when we do get ice, we use chemical, mechanical or a combination of means to treat and move it. Last winter, we only had two ice events, so we were lucky."

Before each snow season, product manufacturers familiarize BFI staff with various anti-icing and deicing products and review proper application techniques. Training is also stressed for the airport's two mechanics. "Both have been factory-trained by the manufacturers," notes Salazar. "One has a background in heavy equipment. The other is former military, fixing vehicles in combat zones."

Whenever the airport purchases new equipment, Salazar makes sure that the purchase price includes training for drivers and mechanics. Local maintenance support from the manufacturer is another important criterion. "We need to be 'priority one' customers," he adds.

As a backup, Salazar also uses vetted local shops that specialize in hydraulics and fabrication (welding) for certain jobs that require extended downtime for equipment.

For preventive maintenance, all pieces are serviced both before and after each snow season. "During the snow season, we get frequent reports, which include feedback from drivers on equipment problems. We also do initial and recurrent familiarization training at the beginning of the season, followed by formation dry-run training twice a week in season," he concludes.

Mercurial Conditions

The weather at Paine Field/Snohomish County Airport (PAE) in Everett, WA, creates unique challenges for Maintenance Manager Bill Penor. "This airport is in a convergence zone between mountains and Puget Sound. We can get white-out snow, while a mile away it can be blue sky," Penor explains.

Winters are also long, with the "snow season" stretching from October through late April.

"The storms circulate in bands, which leads to accumulation, then stall out over the airport," Penor continues. "This can go on for hours. The storms come down from the north, through the Olympic Mountains, over Puget Sound and funnel right to us."


Project: Snow Removal (at airports that don't often receive snow)
Location: Tulsa (OK) Int'l Airport
Annual Operations: 95,295
Maintenance Staff: 11
Vehicles Used for Snow Removal: 10
Location: King County (WA) Int'l Airport
Annual Operations: 182,000
Maintenance Staff: 17
Vehicles Used for Snow Removal: 12
Location: Paine Field (Everett, WA)
Annual Operations: 199,000
Maintenance Staff: 17
Vehicles Used for Snow Removal: 15

Geography challenges notwithstanding, PAE is the main hub for Boeing, which builds aircraft on land immediately adjacent to the airport. "Dreamlifter cargo planes haul in parts for the new 787 from all over the world, and these parts have to be delivered on schedule," he explains.
"Therefore, the runway has to remain open, with a Mu of 40."
Penor's strategy is to dispatch equipment at the first trace of snow. "Our snow blowers can remove 3,000 tons of snow an hour," he relates. "We will have up to six runway brooms in operation at a given time. The snow is wet and slushy, with drier snow on top."

But snow isn't PAE's only winter problem. "Last winter, we had mild temperatures ... with lots of icing," Penor recalls. "Boeing does its own deicing on its planes going out, but we have deicing trucks in our fleet as well - dedicated to just runway deicing."

In all, PAE utilizes about 15 pieces of equipment, rotating units in and out throughout the winter. "We obtain some equipment from the federal government through GSA (General Services Administration), such as Air Force vehicles. We pay shipping. We received six Oshkosh plows with a value of $500,000 each," Penor reports. "We also purchased two used Sweepster runway brooms from another airport in Colorado."

Penor's crew includes 17 full-time maintenance employees, and most can operate all the trucks in the fleet. An in-house mechanic performs almost all repairs, with periodic assistance from airport fire department mechanics as backup.

"We can handle nearly anything Mother Nature tosses our way," he says confidently.

Last year, the staff at PAE enjoyed a relatively uneventful winter. "We had a few snowstorms with three or four inches of snow, but no huge snowstorm hit the property," Penor reports. "We were lucky."

The same, however, could not be said about many other areas of the country.

Industrywide Issues

"Last winter, many parts of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas got hit particularly hard," says Steve Karlin, senior vice president of M-B Companies, a manufacturer of snow equipment. "Some of the small airports in those states have to use old street plows, inherited from their cities. Those plows are designed to be used in one lane of traffic, to cover maybe 11 or 12 feet.

"With a 150-foot-wide runway, they don't have a prayer," Karlin continues. "The plow operator will have to do so many passes, that even on an 8,000-foot runway, he will be out there for hours."

Another common challenge is budget restrictions. "We often get asked about leasing, but that does not work for us," he explains. "If we give a city a $500,000 machine in November, and they return it in April, it is worth only $300,000 at that point. And if they lease it for $60,000 a month, it really is not worth it to them, either."

M-B does, however, sell used machines to airports. Karlin considers the training that is included with such purchases an important element. Educating operators is a big challenge for some small airports that don't receive many winter storms, he notes: "They don't practice for snow removal ... They just don't know what to do when a snowstorm hits."


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