Keep Snow Cleared for Takeoff

Nothing can shut down an airport as fast as a winter storm. But with a well-planned snow and ice management plan, airport crews can keep travelers on schedule.

Hour after hour, the snow kept falling.

Inch by inch, it piled up and slowly began to bring a fast-moving city to a crawl.

It was March 1993, and one of Pennsylvania’s worst winter storms in history was taking its toll on Pittsburgh, dumping 27 inches of snow in the area.

The following year, a similar storm hit the area, this time leaving 24 inches of snow.

Each time, the snow-removal crew at Pittsburgh International Airport sprang into action. It’s goal: to provide safe transportation for air passengers with few interruptions of service.

The proof is in the planning

Although the past few winters have not brought severe winter conditions to Pittsburgh, the maintenance and operations staff at Pittsburgh International Airport have continued to develop and maintain high standards when it comes to snow and ice management.

These departments begin to prepare for harsh weather almost as soon as the previous winter ends. Maintenance of snow-removal equipment begins in earnest each April as every vehicle is given a bumper-to-bumper inspection. Spring is also the time to critique the previous season’s winter operations.

During the summer, airport crews order snow-removal equipment parts, broom bristles and plow blades, and they begin to formulate a revised annual winter-operations plan. The primary objective of the plan is to maintain maximum safety at all times on runways, taxiways and other areas of the airport.

The plan outlines staff responsibilities, snow removal priority listings, aircraft deicing techniques, emergency deicing fluid disposal procedures, standard gate and runway deicing procedures, inspection and reporting techniques, communications techniques and equipment inventory. This, of course, all seems logical and simple, but staying on top of the routine issues is the most critical aspect of being prepared for the following winter.

An ounce of prevention

At Pittsburgh International Airport, the access and fire department roads receive first priority for snow removal, followed by prevailing runways, appropriate taxiways and, finally, deicing pads and aprons.

While the airport has an organized and experienced snow-removal crew and ample equipment, it first utilizes state-of-the-art preventive maintenance techniques to achieve maximum operations for all of its runways. Sensors that relay runway conditions and surface temperature to a constantly monitored computer are embedded in the four runways that serve Pittsburgh International. The airport also maintains 24-hour contact with a contracted weather service, in addition to its satellite feed of weather updates.

These three preventive measures not only save the airport millions of dollars over years of use, but they help provide some of the safest conditions for pilots and their passengers.

The sensors indicate when crews need to apply liquid deicing fluid to the runways, eliminating guesswork when it comes to the surface temperature of the runway. Additionally, constant communications with the weather service means the airport snow-removal crew will be prepared if and when the ice storm hits.

When a severe ice storm is predicted for southwestern Pennsylvania, that is a signal to prepare the 10 deicing trucks that will spray liquid potassium acetate on runways and ramps. This is done in conjunction with the sensors indicating the runway surface temperature has reached 34°F or colder.

The airport has also employed five new deicer trucks that can handle 1,500 gallons of fluid. What makes them unique is a front-discharge spray bar that was designed at Pittsburgh International Airport. This design has eased the spraying around the aircraft and gates because these trucks are smaller and do not have to back into tight areas—as do trucks equipped with only rear-end spray bars—to spray the deicing solution.

The liquid potassium acetate sticks to the runway and prevents ice and snow from bonding to the surface. It is a process that crews must repeat throughout the day if it is raining and freezing rain is still in the forecast. Preventive measures with freezing rain and ice are imperative, because ice is a bigger threat to an airport than any snowfall.

Under normal winter conditions, however, the airport snow-removal crew works effectively to keep the airport running safely. It helps that Pittsburgh International Airport has three parallel runways and a crosswind runway, which make clearing snow a little easier task. The parallel runways allow crews to close a runway without having too much crossing traffic. That lets them concentrate on the runway at hand with few interruptions.

Communication is key

In the 50 years Pittsburgh International Airport has been in operation, closures due to winter-related storms have been minimal. That is a testament to the work ethic of the snow removal crew, which includes field maintenance personnel, operations staff and electricians, as well as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tower personnel.

One unique feature that the airport implements during winter storms focuses on communication. When the snow-removal crew is in action, the FAA tower supervisor communicates directly with the operations snow-removal leader on the airport’s private radio channel. This facilitates snow removal by making communications one-on-one: FAA to operations leader, which ensures accurate communications so that runways can be cleared both safely and swiftly. This communication makes snow and ice management safer and much more effective, which is one of the reasons Pittsburgh International is consistently rated as one of the world’s leading airports.

Essential equipment

Pittsburgh International Airport’s snow-removal equipment includes: 14 18-foot wafer brooms, 10 snow blowers that eat and blow (200 feet away) 2,500 to 5,000 tons of snow per hour, 10 front-end loaders with eight 20- to 24-foot ramp hogs, four graders, 12 sanders, 13 28-foot plows and one 12-foot roll-over plow.

When there are two inches or less of snow, crews use mostly brooms with a couple of plows and a blower to clear the runways.

With more severe weather conditions, however, come more advanced procedures. When more than two inches of snow falls, nine of the 28-foot plows lead the charge, each followed by an 18-foot broom. Crews usually place a blower after every fourth plow-and-broom combination to clear the windrow (the row of snow left by the outer edge of the plow). The 24-foot ramp hogs push back the intersecting taxiways.

If needed, sand, liquid deicer or sodium acetate is applied before the runway is reopened. This entire process, which starts on the runways and works its way in to the taxiways and, ultimately, the gates, gives the pilots the safest conditions possible on the ground.

It is a system that works. Our performance in severe weather is proof.

Although recently southwestern Pennsylvania rarely has enough snow to qualify for the Balchen/Post Award for Excellence in the Performance of Airport Snow and Ice Control (which is given by the Northeast Chapter of The American Association of Airport Executives’ annual International Aviation Snow Symposium), Pittsburgh International Airport has earned this honor four times, in addition to its five honorable mentions.

That prestigious award is not only a testament to our equipment and our planning, but, most importantly, to the operations and maintenance crews as well as all the employees of Pittsburgh International Airport, who take great pride in the success of the airport.

Tom Long is director of maintenance for Pittsburgh International Airport (Pittsburgh, Pa.).

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