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Breaking the ice

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 will be 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 the considerable 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 1 November. 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 snow ploughs’, 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 end points 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. All together 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,” he says.


Toftevåg also 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 set up, 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,” he explains.


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. >>


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