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Being prepared for the worst

Posted: 8 December 2011 | Rob Cooke, Head of Airfield Operations at Birmingham Airport | No comments yet

It is inevitable that adverse weather conditions at airports will lead to operational restrictions on airfields and will often lead to disruption to aircraft operations. This was witnessed during December 2011 when the world looked on as UK aviation was severely affected by freezing conditions and heavy snowfall. However, at Birmingham Airport this operational impact was not as bad as some other major UK airports. This was mainly due to our investment in new equipment and our ongoing commitment to plan and exercise for adverse weather events. Nevertheless, the bad weather did force us to close the runway on four occasions, totalling slightly less than 16 hours with less than eight hours occurring during our core operational hours (06:00 and 22:00).

Winters in the UK are variable so all airports can do is prepare, train and test. Until snow falls it is difficult to know what the full extent of the impact will be. Conditions can vary so any disruption will depend on the amount of snow, duration of snowfall and the temperature and conditions on the ground before it starts to fall. Whilst we make every reasonable effort to clear snow and ice from airside areas, it is a lengthy process, especially when there is a persistent snowfall – as soon as you have completed a sweep of the runway it is covered again and the process has to be repeated. Unlike landside areas, rock salt cannot be used on the runway or taxiways to treat areas in advance of forecast ice or snowfall, and if there is just four inches of snowfall at Birmingham Airport, some 20,000 tonnes of snow will need to be cleared.

It is inevitable that adverse weather conditions at airports will lead to operational restrictions on airfields and will often lead to disruption to aircraft operations. This was witnessed during December 2011 when the world looked on as UK aviation was severely affected by freezing conditions and heavy snowfall. However, at Birmingham Airport this operational impact was not as bad as some other major UK airports. This was mainly due to our investment in new equipment and our ongoing commitment to plan and exercise for adverse weather events. Nevertheless, the bad weather did force us to close the runway on four occasions, totalling slightly less than 16 hours with less than eight hours occurring during our core operational hours (06:00 and 22:00). Winters in the UK are variable so all airports can do is prepare, train and test. Until snow falls it is difficult to know what the full extent of the impact will be. Conditions can vary so any disruption will depend on the amount of snow, duration of snowfall and the temperature and conditions on the ground before it starts to fall. Whilst we make every reasonable effort to clear snow and ice from airside areas, it is a lengthy process, especially when there is a persistent snowfall – as soon as you have completed a sweep of the runway it is covered again and the process has to be repeated. Unlike landside areas, rock salt cannot be used on the runway or taxiways to treat areas in advance of forecast ice or snowfall, and if there is just four inches of snowfall at Birmingham Airport, some 20,000 tonnes of snow will need to be cleared.

It is inevitable that adverse weather conditions at airports will lead to operational restrictions on airfields and will often lead to disruption to aircraft operations. This was witnessed during December 2011 when the world looked on as UK aviation was severely affected by freezing conditions and heavy snowfall. However, at Birmingham Airport this operational impact was not as bad as some other major UK airports. This was mainly due to our investment in new equipment and our ongoing commitment to plan and exercise for adverse weather events. Nevertheless, the bad weather did force us to close the runway on four occasions, totalling slightly less than 16 hours with less than eight hours occurring during our core operational hours (06:00 and 22:00).

Winters in the UK are variable so all airports can do is prepare, train and test. Until snow falls it is difficult to know what the full extent of the impact will be. Conditions can vary so any disruption will depend on the amount of snow, duration of snowfall and the temperature and conditions on the ground before it starts to fall. Whilst we make every reasonable effort to clear snow and ice from airside areas, it is a lengthy process, especially when there is a persistent snowfall – as soon as you have completed a sweep of the runway it is covered again and the process has to be repeated. Unlike landside areas, rock salt cannot be used on the runway or taxiways to treat areas in advance of forecast ice or snowfall, and if there is just four inches of snowfall at Birmingham Airport, some 20,000 tonnes of snow will need to be cleared.

Overall snow clearance went well at Birmingham last winter but the extreme cold temperatures, recorded at minus 18 degrees celsius at times on the airfield, led to new challenges particularly with the performance of some of the de-icing products in such low temperatures. This has been reviewed and changes incorporated ahead of the coming winter, including more storage to allow different types of fluid to be held. We have invested in two new de-icing rigs and we also have our own road tanker this winter. This will allow us to collect fluid in the unlikely event that a supplier cannot reach us quickly enough with a delivery.

At any time of crisis, communication is key. It is therefore essential that all airside users are constantly aware that snow and ice may be present so they can take extra precautions. Our winter operation plan provides a framework for the management of winter operations and every year it is reviewed with both internal and external stakeholders. Following last year’s adverse weather we are introducing the use of a ‘Snow-Cell’ to enhance communication in significant disruption events and we have requested that all third parties operating airside, such as handling agents, fuellers and caterers, provide copies of their own winter operation plans, outlining what additional readiness measures they employ when snow is forecast. These plans were tested at a joint table-top exercise in September 2011.

Our winter preparations begin not long after the end of the winter season with reviews of how the operations went and the identification of improvements that would be sensible for the following year. We also have to plan, in advance, any additional equipment acquisitions or replacements to ensure that they are delivered in sufficient time and to allow training ahead of next season.

Our Airfield Technical Manager is responsible for making sure that all the snow clearing equipment is available and suitable for the winter weather conditions, and our Airfield Operations Manager ensures that the snow plan is tested and that the operations team is fully trained. During the winter season, our Airfield Duty Manager has responsibility for collating and assessing Met Office warnings and informing the relevant departments. When adverse weather hits, it is their duty to initiate the snow clearance operation and will assume the role of Snow Controller, continually liaising with the Snow-Cell. For every snow event, a Snow Controller and Snow-Cell Co-ordinator will be allocated. They are members of the operations and management teams and will remain in constant communication with other key partners to inform and update them on the situation.

The Airfield Duty Manager is also responsible for mobilising the snow clearing force which would be put on early standby alert if snow is forecast. This will involve teams of staff to drive the motorised brush/tractors and sweep the areas around the aircraft stands and a separate pool to drive the runway/taxiway clearance equipment. The runway and taxiway snow clearing is carried out by the airfield operations team and trained contractors. Supervision and advice is available throughout any period of snow clearing from the Airfield Management Team who take a leading role in every clearance event.

To provide a resilient, reliable resource during snow events, a pool of volunteers is used to support the Airfield Team and trained contractors who are given full training on airside driving and use of equipment. Training and refresher training normally takes place during September to November, which involves instructions on how to drive simple snow clearing equipment on the apron and around the terminal.

We also involve our airlines, handling agents and fuel companies to assist in ensuring the safe operation of the ramp. These responsibilities include making sure that the contents of the winter operations plan is disseminated to frontline staff, ensuring that they are fully briefed on weather warning details, and can assist with de-icing and snow clearance from passenger walkways, roadways and stand areas. Those working on the ramp are asked to report all observed snow or ice contamination on aircraft parking stands to the Snow-Cell and our handling agents are responsible for ensuring that their aircraft de-icing operation does not impact on the safe embarkation/disembarkation of passengers and turnaround of subsequent aircraft.

We are able to measure the success of the plan by ensuring:

  • The safe operation of the runway
  • The safe passage of aircraft to and from the runway
  • The safety of passengers embarking/ disembarking aircraft, particularly where no air-bridge is used
  • The safety of staff employed on the ramp

When faced with a snow event, the first priority is to try and prevent the need to close the runway so the operations team ensures that the runway has been pre-treated with de-icing fluid that will delay or prevent the accumulation of snow. Once the intensity of the snowfall, or duration, exceeds a certain point and accumulations are seen to be forming, a decision is taken to close the runway and allow a clearance operation with the airport’s fleet of large snow sweepers. These are driven by the airfield operations team and trained contractors.

Once the sweepers have removed the majority of the snow from the runway, the runway is re-treated with de-icing fluid that removes the last thin layer of snow and we finally make a visual inspection to ensure that the runway can be safely returned to service. Clearly, if conditions deteriorate to the point beyond which the safe operation of the airfield cannot be assured, we will close the runway and suspend aircraft movements.

Predicting accurate weather conditions for the forthcoming winter season is always difficult because forecast accuracy diminishes with time, and although we will get general predictions, they are not reliable enough to base resource planning around. The simple reality is that we ensure we have resources that can cope with the type of weather we expect to see over the winter and this has proved to be largely effective over the last three winters. However, during the winter months, we have a meteorological forecasting service in place, provided by the Met Office, which gives a five day and a daily forecast summary. It also gives access to talk to a forecaster in more detail if required.

Our weather forecast is put into four categories:

  • Freezing temperatures
  • Light snowfall (0-2cm) u Moderate snow forecast (2-5cm)
  • Heavy snow forecast (greater than 5cm)

The operations team will review the five day forecast and if the risk of snow accumulation for any of these days is showing above 50 per cent, the team would communicate this to a list of partners including airlines, ATC, handling agents, concessionaires and other key parties.

Within 24 hours of the time period at risk, an amber alert will be issued via a text message giving the expected time, accumulation, type and depth of the snowfall. When snowfall starts, a red alert will be declared and sweeping will start. A further text will be issued detailing the time it started, the actual accumulation and expected duration, amount and type of snowfall.

With temperatures running as low as minus 18 degrees celcius last winter, the airport used over half a million litres of de-icing fluid. This year we have purchased two new de-icing rigs for stand and airfield anti-icing and de-icing and increased our de-icer storage capacity to give us on-site storage of pavement de-icing fluid in excess of a quarter of a million litres.

Although the airport fully complies with environmental regulations and has stringent policies in place to avoid pollution to surface water drains, watercourses and groundwater, it has to obtain prior approval from the Environment Agency for all de-icing or anti-icing agents that are intended for use. Further details are also provided during the use including:

  • Start of application
  • Products used u Daily amount of the product used and the strength at which it was applied
  • Area of application e.g. stands, taxiway etc.

We now have 30 pieces of snow and ice clearing equipment including new John Deere tractors and a ‘Multi-Hog’ combination brush/de-icer designed to get into very tight spaces around aircraft stand equipment. A new 20ft wide ramp plough will also be deployed this winter if needed. Over the last five years we have invested nearly £1.5 million in winter operation equipment. As an airport we are prepared for whatever the weather throws at us.

 

About the Author

Rob Cooke is Head of Airport Operations at Birmingham Airport which includes airside safety, motor transport, operations training and compliance and airfield engineering along with oversight for third party contracts for Air Traffic Control and ARFF. As well as managing the winter operations plan, Rob and his team ensure the day-to- day safe operation of aircraft and staff airside including the runway, taxiways, aircraft stands and airside roads, and maintains the aerodromes license to operate. Rob manages a team of 130 people and has been working for Birmingham Airport for almost four years, having previously worked for the BAA and Peel Airports in various operational roles.

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