Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport

Now the airport info booths are going virtual

We’re declaring the virtual information booth an official trend at airports.

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF) rolled out its Virtual Information Booth back in May 2020. The super social distanced system lets travelers connect with a volunteer Airport Ambassador in a remote location via a live video feed.

In July 2020 Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) introduced a pilot virtual assistant program in Terminal 2. That system lets passengers have real-time conversations with customer service agents over a touch-free tablet at the real-world information booth. 

Two more U.S. airports now have virtual information booths as well.

The Virtual Information Desk at Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) is near the Southwest Airlines baggage claim belts 1-5. Passengers can get help from a Pathfinder staff member stationed in a safe, remote location.

During this holiday season, Denver International Airport (DEN) is testing a new Live Agent program. DEN’s program will let passengers interact with a live customer service agent via video, text messaging, and live chat. 

At two information (one in the center of the terminal, near arrivals; one in the center of Concourse C) passengers can use iPads to contact a customer service agent for a virtual face-to-face interaction.

The customer service agents can also be reached through DEN’s website and via text chat.

The pilot program, in partnership with Recursive Labs, also allows a traveler to use the camera on their smartphone to show the Live Agent where they are in the airport so the agent can help with directions.

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!

Tidbits for travelers: Junk to Funk at PDX; Dillinger at BWI

Here’s some fun stuff to look at airports on either side of the country:

At Oregon’s Portland International Airport the Junk to Funk exhibit features couture fashion made from recycled and reused materials – and trash.

“Kitty litter bags become a suit; vinyl records are reborn as sequins; coffee filters have an afterlife as the layered ruffles of an evening gown; miniblinds bend magically into a spunky dress.”

You can see these fashions through September 2010 on Concourse E.

And the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C. has made it possible for Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) to display the getaway car once owned by notorious bank-robber John Dillinger.

This 1933 Essex Terraplane is on display in Southwest Airlines’ Terminal A/B at BWI Marshall Airport

Tidbits for travelers: holiday news from airports around the country

Christmas week is always a big deal for airports and air travel.

This year, as usual, lines are long, people are cranky, and there’s a storm wreaking havoc with schedules and everyone’s best laid plans.

So, it’s a good bet that if you’re traveling by air this week, you’re going to spend some time being stuck at an airport. Remember to bring supplies such as books, snacks, a charged cell phone, and some extra cash to buy a few last minute gifts.

And remember to look around: some airports are hosting complimentary gift wrapping stations and many airports have scheduled holiday events and entertainment.

Here are just a few examples:

The Chicago Airport System’s schedule of “Holiday Delights” continues at both O’Hare Airport and Midway through Wednesday, December 23rd with performances by local blues, jazz, international, R&B performers, barbershop quartets and carolers. There will also be children’s workshops and a visit from Santa Claus.

Both airports are also offering free gift wrapping, past security, on December 21 and 23 with wrapping paper and gift bags created by students from the After School Matters program.

On Monday December 21st, Southwest Airlines and The Container Store join forces to offer free gift wrapping at Dallas Love Field, Phoenix Sky Harbor, Denver International, Saint Louis Lambert International, and Baltimore-Washington International airports. Here are some details about locations and times.

Free gift wrapping continues in various spots around Phoenix Sky Harbor airport through December 24th and through Wednesday at San Diego International Airport. Check your airport’s Web site to see if free gift wrapping is being offer there as well. Keep in mind that many airport shops also offer fee gift wrapping and many will have piles of pre-wrapped items ready to grab-n’- go.

If you find yourself hanging around Detroit Metroplitan Airport (DTW) Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday (Dec 21 – 23rd), head on over to the stage next the water feature in the center of Concourse A (near Gate A40). The airport is partnering with local Delta Air Lines folks to host a holiday karaoke event called “Sing Because you Care” between 11 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. each day.

Anyone, or any group, that sings is being asked to donate $5 to support the local Salvation Army.

And here’s a great gift for anyone flying to or from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA): the airport light rail station opened, as promised, on Saturday, December 19th. Just in time to save a lot of holiday travelers a lot of hassle and money.

It’s now possible to ride between the airport and downtown Seattle for $2.50.

Thanks, Santa!

Holiday entertainment & freebies at ATL, SEA, and other airports


If you’re traveling anytime during the next two weeks, it’s a fair bet you’ll find long lines and plenty of hassled travelers at the airport. But this time of year many airports are also serving up fun, freebies, and plenty of entertainment.

SANTA fruit label

A few examples:

From December 16 – 24, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) has an entertainment program that includes live music performances, guest appearances by Santa, and a roving game team that will be rewarding winners with discount coupons for shops, services and restaurants at the airport.

XMAS girlHartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) also kicks off its annual Holiday Music series today, with a performance in the Atrium from 5 to 7pm by a group called Twisted Royalty. You can see the full series schedule here.

And on Monday, December 21st, 2009, from 10 am until 5 pm, the Container Store is partnering with Southwest Airlines to offer complimentary gift-wrapping at some airports, including:

Dallas Love Field   –  Gate 5
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport   –   D Gates
Denver International Airport   –   Gate C41
Saint Louis-Lambert International Airport   –   Gates 14 and 16
Baltimore-Washington International Airport   –   Gates B1, B2, and B3