Airports, particularly in Northern Europe, are reputed for having a designated and systematic approach to adverse weather. Keith Mwanalushi looks at how some airports prepare for winter operations.
As the winter months approach, the frosty issue of managing airport operations in icy weather is raised in airport boardrooms across the northern hemisphere. Most delays in the air transport cycle occur at the airport, in large part due to the complexity of managing a large number of supporting flows in airport logistics.
At Glasgow Airport in the UK – given Scotland’s geographical location in Northern Europe – extensive planning is put in place by the operations team virtually all year round. The airport serves numerous low cost and regional carriers, including Flybe, Ryanair, Loganair and Jet2.com.
“We don’t really stop preparing and planning for winter operations,” states James-Paul Straiton, Glasgow Airport’s airfield operations manager. “As soon as one winter has passed we hold a wash-up learning event to assess how we did and if there are any lessons to take on board from the previous season. It is essential that we capture this data as soon as possible, so we can build into next winter’s planning.”
Glasgow Airport invests a lot of time and equipment throughout the year in preparation for a full training programme that commences in October, ready to be implemented for the official start of the winter on-call roster on November 1st.
Straiton explains: “Obviously, there are a couple of months in the year where winter operations are less relevant, but we still deal with a number of different weather circumstances, be it cold weather, severe winds or heavy rain, ice, right up to snow in its different variations.”
Scotland doesn’t often get blanketed with snow like some other countries. “It’s not like you can set your watch for snowfall in the same way you might in other countries when winter sets in,” Straiton observes.
However infrequent snow might be, Straiton stresses that the airport needs to be ready, and that requires a considerable amount of planning, staff, equipment and training to be put in place beforehand. “We also work with a lot of suppliers and contractors to make sure that everything is ready and set up to go when bad weather hits,” he continues.
In Finland, winter conditions last for months every year. “We are used to it and we have developed a world-famous ‘snow-how’ capability to handle any winter challenges that might appear,” reveals Heini Noronen-Juhola, vice president at Finavia Corporation – the Finnish airport operator.
“Because of our unique Finnish snow know-how, our winter maintenance is able to ensure safe conditions on the runways and timely operations even in the winter,” she says. At Helsinki Airport, for instance, Finavia operates a strategic snow clearance fleet that includes some 60 vehicles and other equipment.
“Our brush blowers, also known as ‘monster snowploughs’, are based on Finnish expertise and design. They are worth special attention,” Noronen-Juhola highlights. She says the runways are cleared of snow one at a time.
“Nine or ten brush blower vehicles run side to side on a runway that is roughly three kilometres in length and 60 metres in width. It takes this crew eleven to twelve minutes to clear one runway from end to end.”
The snow clearance vehicles and equipment are operated by over 100 Finavia experts on the runways and other airport areas. The fleet is maintained by the unit’s own repair shop and is also able to produce spare parts when needed.
“We have about 26 different brushing patterns for the runways, selected on the basis of departing and arriving traffic and flight directions. Each brushing pattern comes with its own carefully defined start and endpoints and duration,” Noronen-Juhola notes.
At Oslo Airport in Norway, there is a dedicated team for winter and airport maintenance who are available 24/7, in addition to other contractors.
“If winter conditions supersede our own resources, we have 33 contractors working on stands and internal roads, 14 contractors working on the apron area and 10 contractors working on landside. Altogether we have six groups working with winter operations,” declares Thomas Toftevåg, airfield maintenance section manager at Oslo Airport.
Similarly, preparations for winter at Oslo are an ongoing process. “During the winter we have regular evaluations. Some findings are implemented immediately, and some will be postponed to the next season. This is due to complexity, benefits or training needs,” Toftevåg says.
He asserts that predictability is key to ensuring a high level of punctuality in winter conditions: “Experienced personnel, well-functioning equipment, speed and comprehensive planning are all key factors at Oslo.”
In March 2015 there was a massive snow event, with 45cm of snowfall within 24 hours, recalls Toftevåg. He says the intensity of snow was up to 5cm per hour. Despite a robust setup, with all of the necessary equipment, capacity and experienced personnel, the conditions were so severe that the airport had to close for 90 minutes.
“We did an analysis and made a contingency plan for excessive snow amount. In addition, we included an analysis of what to do if freezing conditions were not forecasted and we didn’t manage to work proactively. In short, we pre-planned which areas to not perform winter maintenance, but still have sufficient areas to keep a certain flow,” explains Toftevåg.
Back in Glasgow, the worst winter scenario faced in recent times was in 2010, when the entire UK was blanketed with snow. “I think the biggest challenge we face generally, certainly in the UK, is that we don’t see enough snow to be able to be experts in how we operate, clear or manage it,” Straiton says.
He explains that the biggest difference for the UK, as opposed to continental Europe or Canada, for example, is the type of snow. “They’ll have powdered snow that compacts and can be worked on fairly easily, whereas we [UK] get wet, slushy snow which compacts into ice and becomes a very different issue.”
For Glasgow Airport, the machinery operated is absolutely crucial. “We currently have five Øveraasen RS 400s, which are used to clear the runway and work in tandem with the three SB 90s we also use for taxiways. They’re great pieces of kit and, most importantly, work at speed and allow us to clear our runway and taxiways quickly and effectively.”
Airside operations and the Airside Service Unit (ASU) at Glasgow form part of the runway and airside inspection teams. “They work on a five-month stand-by roster, which runs parallel to their own shift plans,” says Straiton.
Glasgow Airport also operates a volunteer programme made up of staff drawn from across the airport’s own workforce. “This year we have 84 volunteers, who are also supplemented with ASU staff, so in total, we have just under 100 in the programme from every area of airport life involved in supporting our winter operations programme.”
Finavia’s Noronen-Juhola cannot overemphasise the need for planning, planning and even more planning as the airport operator’s key strategy.
“At Helsinki Airport, for instance, snow needs to be cleared from even larger areas than before due to the €900 million expansion project underway at the airport. To guarantee a smooth flow of traffic we will acquire additional vehicles for future winters, but basically, the processes are the same, and the scale will just get bigger,” she says.
New technologies are constantly evolving to make the airport operation more efficient, with even greater urgency placed on increasing efficiency during challenging weather conditions. With new technology, weather forecasting is improving all the time. “This is obviously very helpful for us,” says Noronen-Juhola.
However, in Finland, as in many other parts of the world, the weather can be unpredictable, so in such circumstances, it boils down to just implementing the right processes and skills for the work at hand.
Glasgow Airport is also embracing new technologies to improve their operations. Straiton points to tools such as GPS and live radar feeds, which are vital when it comes to clearing the airfield, particularly when using real-time data. “It also allows you to monitor weather patterns and tweak to improve operational effectiveness.”
He adds that technological advances are providing much greater detail, which is very useful for planning. “You have a far greater degree of confidence that your resources are deployed in the right place, the correct materials being used at the right time, and that you are utilising your resources in the best way at any given period.”
Social media has also proven to be beneficial for Glasgow Airport. “For example, our winter ops volunteers use a closed Facebook page, and we’ve found this to be simple, but a really useful resource in terms of communication and intelligence sharing.”
Straiton also reports that Glasgow Airport is currently looking at a new de-icing machine that will provide real-time GPS data, so as to plot and understand its use more efficiently. “It records and relays real-time accurate measurements to show, for example, coverage of a specific area to let us drill down on effectiveness.”
There is also an increased focus on environmental responsibility across the entire airport sector – and seemingly, this has an effect on winter operations and the equipment and products used.
For instance, Oslo Airport has been using biodiesel on all winter equipment. Toftevåg explains: “We started testing in the winter season of 2015-2016. Some with only biodiesel and some with a mixture of biodiesel and regular diesel.”
So far, Oslo Airport has not reported any malfunction or breakdowns due to the use of environmentally-friendly fuel, or any reduced effect. Interestingly, Oslo Airport has an ongoing project that cools the terminal with the use of snow.
“We have built a site where we deposit snow which we cover with wood chips. This facility is built to cool down our new T2 terminal. It has been operational for one year, and the results from last summer were very positive,” Toftevåg reports.
Ultimately, as airports get bigger and busier, greater collaboration between airlines, airports and ground handlers will be necessary to minimise the impact of wintry weather.
Editor’s Note: The post was originally published in January 2018.