At the airport: snow happens.

In February 2010, snowstorms so inundated Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport that outside help was needed to cart all the snow away.

Luckily the snow-moving experts at Liberty Mountain Resort and Conference Center were willing to come over and help out with their Bully 600 ski slope and trail grooming vehicle.

BWI AIRPORT snow removal

A creative solution to an icy problem and, as I found out for this column in – Winter survival strategies from [some of ] the USA’s snowiest airports – not unlike the snow-situations airports around the country must face each winter.

Pittsburgh Airport clearing snow

Clearing snow at Pittsburgh International Airport

Like the plowed snow at many airports, registrations for the 45th annual International Aviation Snow Symposium are beginning to pile up.

Held each April, most often in snowstorm-prone Buffalo, the symposium bestows awards on airports that excel in battling the white stuff and offers airport staff a chance to chill out and swap war stories about what went right or wrong, weather-wise, during the previous winter.

So far this season, storms have triggered the cancellation of thousands of flights and forced the temporary closing of many airports. That means there’ll be plenty to talk about at this year’s conference, as attendees try to take in tactics to make you less likely to get stuck at an airport next winter.

But when it comes to operations in unforgiving winter weather, not all airports are created equal.

Art. Not science.

“It’s not a science. There’s no book out there called Airport Snow Removal for Dummies,” says Paul Hoback, maintenance director for the Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County airports. “It’s more of an art.”

“Experience helps,” adds Hoback. “Our people have to know how to treat different types of precipitation and how to react to wind speed and wind direction so they don’t push the snow off the runway and have it blow right back on. They also have to understand what different types of ice and snow might do when they hit the ground.”

That knowledge, good planning and communication and the right equipment were all in place at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) last February 5th when a storm dumped more than 20 inches of snow at the airport.

“The storm was too much for many airports in the Northeast,” says Hoback, “And even we ended up closing for 17 hours. Our crews took that as a defeat but fought to get the airfield back open so that one or two airplanes with transplant organs aboard could land.”

For its efforts during that storm, Pittsburgh airport won one of a coveted Balchen/Post Awards at last year’s International Aviation Snow Symposium. Dulles International Airport, Chicago O’Hare and the Greater Rochester International Airport took home first-place awards as well.

Equipment helps

Boston Logan Vammas snow machines

Boston Logan International Airports Vammas machines in action

At Boston Logan International Airport, which won a Balchen/Post Award in 2009, airport spokesperson Richard Walsh says, “We consider snow a four letter word. We go out there and battle storms to the end.”

Logan was closed for a just a few hours last Wednesday during a storm that dumped heavy snow on parts of New England. In Logan’s corner during that storm: a snow plan, determination and eleven, 68-foot long Vammas snow machines, each a giant plow, sweeper and blower rolled-into-one. When working in unison, airport officials boast that the Vammas fleet can clear a 10,000 foot runway in less than 15 minutes.

Buffalo Niagara International Airport snow plow

Snow plow shoot plumes of snow at Buffalo Niagara International Airport

Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, which hosts the annual aviation snow symposium, has won the Balchen/Post award multiple times. And although it gets an average of more than 8 feet of snow a year, it’s been more than three years since BUF has had to close due to snow.

“At the first snowflake we’ll send out a whole fleet of broom trucks to immediately begin brushing the pavement,” says airfield superintendent Tom Dames. “When snow piles up, we also have monster truck snow blowers that churn up snow and spit it out into the fields away from the runway. It looks a lot like fireboats shooting out plumes of water; except these are huge plumes of snow.”

Do-over in Denver

A few years back, Denver International Airport learned some important snow lessons the hard way.

Denver Airport clearing snow

Denver Airport has a new approach to snow removal

In 2006, just days before Christmas, Denver got hit with a blizzard that dumped 22 inches of snow in a 24-hour period. “The airport was closed for 22 hours,” says Mark Nagel, Denver Airport’s Acting Deputy Manager of Aviation. “It took us that long to clean up and get a couple of runways and our ramps clear.”

3,000 passengers spent their Christmas stranded at Denver airport that year. Nagel says “No one was too thrilled. We did kind of receive a black eye for that because it took us so long to recover.”

The problem was too big to sweep under a pile of snow. Instead, a consultant was hired; a study was conducted and DIA learned that, when it came to snow, the airport was inefficient, unorganized, understaffed and armed with not enough equipment.

The fixes included retraining, reorganizing and reassessing snow removal priorities. And now, like other airports, DIA has a snow committee that meets year-round with airlines, the FAA and other airport stakeholders to make sure the snow control plan is realistic and up-to-date.

Denver International Airport has also invested millions of dollars in new equipment and switched from single-function to more modern multi-function machinery that can plow and sweep at the same time. “So instead of taking 45-minutes to an hour to clear a runway, we can now do it in less than 15 minutes” says Ron Morin, Denver Airport’s Director of Aviation Field Maintenance.

And instead of having a single snow team, the Denver airport now has eight; each with a dedicated function. Team members were offered the chance to name their machines, but they asked instead to name their teams. Now, whenever it snows, you’ll see the Snow Cats, the Marauders, the Taxi Way Tuxedoes, the Blizzard Busters, the Deice Men Cometh, the Ramp Rats and the Snow Dawgs taking care of business.

Advice from Anchorage Airport and Mother Nature

Anchorage Airport

Anchorage Airport has never closed due to snow

Anchorage International Airport has won the Balchen/Post award four times and is always ready for snow. “Our snow season lasts from October through mid-April,” says Airfield Maintenance manager Dan Frisby. “At other airports it will snow and then melt. Here, the snow can stick around all year long.”

Frisby and assistant manager Zaramie Lindseth know the airport has been closed due to volcanic ash, a windstorm, the 1964 earthquake and, like other U.S. airports, for a few days after 9/11. But they can find no records that show the airport has ever been closed due to ice or snow.

In addition to having the right equipment, Frisby says it’s important that airports maintain their equipment and not skimp on the cost of crews and supplies. “Some airports try and hold back on the chemicals. And it just bites you. You’ve got to go into attack mode when a storm starts and use the chemicals as they were designed.”

No matter how well an airport prepares, though, sometimes snow happens and there’s really nothing anyone can do.

“When Denver International Airport opened, it was touted as the all-weather airport,” says DIA’s Mark Nagel. “They said ‘We’ll never close.’ But we’ve learned the hard way that you have to respect Mother Nature and balance safety with the goal of staying open.”

All photos courtesy of the featured airports. Thank-you.

Do you know an airport that does really well in the snow?  Let us know!

Bad day to be flying to or from Newark Liberty International Airport

Just nine days after a failed terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound plane, and on the day that the TSA issues yet another new set of security directives for flights to the United States, comes news of a lock-down in Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Sunday evening, January 3, 2010, a man walked into a secure area at the airport, triggering a terminal-wide lockdown, grounding outgoing planes and forcing thousands of passengers to wait hours for re-screening.  The Star Ledger’s article about the incident has a great slide-show showing scenes of how miserable passengers were during the ensuing re-screening process, but this YouTube video shows that there were a few light moments.

No go for Tempelhof Airport

It looks like its curtains after all for Berlin’s historic Tempelhof International Airport.

According to news reports, airport supporters failed to get enough people to vote this past weekend to keep the airport open. There wasn’t even enough turn-out to have the vote be considered valid.

Tempelholf Airport played a crucial role in the one of the biggest humanitarian air relief missions in history: the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War. The facility is Germany’s oldest commercial airport and is said to be the world’s third largest building, behind the Pentagon and Ceausescu’s palace in Bucharest.


Tempelhof Airport Interior
Photo credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology