Beating winter back

posted on 27th June 2018

Keeping runways, taxiways and aircraft stands free of snow and ice is no easy matter and couldn’t be done without the help of some pretty sophisticated machines

Eggiwil, Switzerland-headquartered Zaugg AG describes itself as a world leader in the development, design and production of snow clearance machines and vehicles for airports as well as roads, railways and the preparation of ski slopes.

According to Adrian Jezzone, Zaugg Airport Equipment sales manager, the manufacturer’s products are best known for quality, exceptional operational dependability, unsurpassed working comfort and above-average working life. Moreover, he says, constant innovation and flexibility to adapt to changing customer needs has enabled the company to grow strongly over recent years and it now employs a workforce of approximately 170 people.

Its product range was significantly enhanced in May 2010 when it acquired the Rolba self-propelled snow blowers of fellow Swiss business Bucher Municipal, not only expanding its own portfolio of snow ploughs and blowers but also ensuring the continued existence of the very well-known Swiss Rolba brand.

Zaugg is also making ongoing improvements to the range. It has, for example, re-designed the former Bucher Rolba model to launch the Rolba 5000 self-propelled snow blower for heavy-duty runway snow clearance at major airports. With a snow-clearing capacity of 8,000 tons per hour, a casting distance of up to 50 metres and a clearing path of 3 metres, it also benefits from having the cab placed directly over the vehicle’s snow-clearing head. The first of the new units is in operation now at Finland’s Helsinki Airport.

The Rolba 5000 is just the latest Zaugg offering – one in ten of the company’s employees work in research and development (R&D), Jezzone informs. “At the moment, we are focusing on the Rolba snow blowers, the introduction of (equipment meeting) the new standards in engine exhaust emissions and enhancements for our airport snow sweepers.”

Operational changes

Because of evolving weather conditions throughout the world as well as ever-increasing time pressures to remove snow on airport runways and taxiways, the methods of clearing that snow have changed drastically, and so too has the equipment used, Jezzone believes.

Even the snow has changed consistency! “In certain areas, where you have been used to dealing with nice powder snow, today you are forced to remove slush or even ice,” he explains. “This requires a very aggressive way of snow clearing. The machines have become much larger and much more powerful. Time is money – when air operations have to be shut down, everybody is losing lots of money, a situation that has to be avoided under any circumstances.”

This isn’t all bad news, especially for Zaugg and other equipment manufacturers, apparently – many worried airports are buying more equipment than necessary to be ready for the worst-case scenario. “That’s why Zaugg is steadily improving, designing and developing its equipment in this direction: to meet those new challenges,” Jezzone says.

Like many other GSE manufacturers, whether of snow clearing or other equipment types, Zaugg offers re-sales of second-hand machines. It has also developed the after-sales and maintenance side of its offering. Certainly the company regards itself as the maintenance expert in terms of its own machines and, as such, it can either sell its maintenance expertise or train the customer to handle the servicing and maintenance of the equipment it has purchased.

With regard to the latter, “this has the advantage that they get first-hand knowledge of how to do the job and it is not necessary for them to involve any third party. It is certainly a big benefit for the customer,” Jezzone insists. Of course, this option isn’t always possible for every client – they may not have engineers on the payroll at all, for example – in which case, the former option offers a degree of safety, he notes, given that Zaugg will ensure high-quality maintenance in comparison to another contractor which may not be familiar with the equipment.

Scandinavian expertise

Norway’s Overaasen is another major supplier of airport snow-removal equipment. Indeed, for decades it has focused on the provision of snow-clearing machines to the airport market and, according to managing director and owner Thor Overaasen, it supplies more snow blowers and sweepers to airport authorities than any other manufacturer.

Being Norwegian is itself an advantage, he believes, bringing with it a certain innate degree of expertise and know-how as regards managing snow clearance. Overaasen’s wide range of machines all offer certain advantages in terms of performance and reliability (and consequent low life-cycle costs), while being comparatively simply to operate, its managing director says.

Like Zaugg’s Jezzone, Overaasen considers that innovation is crucial for a company active in this market – “It’s vital to stay one step ahead of the competition,” he says. Also critical is the need to maintain close contact with customers and end users, and it was in response to customer requirements that towards the end of last year the company launched its new Performance Line range of snow removal units.

Offering what Overaasen describes as “futuristic design and technology”, the range meets the latest emission standards for EU Stage IV engines and comes equipped with upgraded hydraulic and electric power and control systems. The Performance Line incorporates the new RS 200 runway sweeper, RS 400 runway sweeper, RSC compact runway sweeper and the TV 1000 snow blower.

The scale of the task

Even with the very best of equipment, snow clearance is a massive job for many airports, small and large, around the world. North America gets its fair share of snow and, during a normal winter storm that lasts for 12 or so hours, the snow clearance team at Bangor International Airport in Maine would generally clear the runway about 10 to 12 times, explains the gateway’s airfield maintenance supervisor, Marty Kelly (also known, somewhat less officially, as the airport’s ‘snow boss’).

“On a normal winter season we average about 90-100 inches of snow,” he continues. But some winters have produced well over 150 inches of snow, while others have produced less than 50. “Last winter (2013-14), we experienced 11 ice events, which made it extremely challenging for the snow team,” although Kelly adds that there is no feeling amongst his team that storms have got any worse because of global warming. The airport ploughs approximately 380 acres (more than 1.5 million square metres) of pavement and concrete, an area that includes the runway, taxiways and ramp.

To the west of Bangor, the challenge is equally severe: “Calgary International Airport experiences extreme weather due to our proximity to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and our elevation of 1,084 metres,” explains Roy McLeod, director, airside services at the Canadian gateway.

“Due to these factors we can see temperatures rise or fall +/- 20 degrees Celsius in just a day,” he observes. “These extremes play havoc with any levels of humidity in the atmosphere. In recent years, our precipitation has come earlier in the winter than usual (October to January) and the 2013-14 winter season saw snowfalls over double the 10-year average for December.”

During heavier snow events, the airport will block maintenance windows as frequently as every 60 minutes to allow for runway clearing. And the total area to be cleared in massive: Calgary International Airport has 719,000 square metres of runway surface, 1.155 million square metres of taxiway surface and 400,000 square metres of apron surface that are cleared on a priority basis.

Europe, too, has harsh winters and Switzerland sees plenty of snow. Francis Graber, adjoint chef service piste (assistant runway services manager) at Switzerland’s Geneva International Airport, explains that the snow clearance team at the gateway will on a typical winter’s day normally clear runways and taxiways between three and five times. The stands are cleared once or twice a day, not more.

Heavy falls in Geneva can amount to 30 centimetres of snow in just 24 hours. “When it snows, we start to clean non-stop until everything is cleared because after a snow event we get a lot of north-east winds coming with cold weather, and if it’s not clean everything freezes,” Graber remarks. Geneva may not have the land area to clear of Bangor or Calgary to clear, but there’s still much to be done – 195,000 square metres of runway, 190,557 square metres of taxiway and 596,100 square metres of apron have to be cleared. Aircraft parking areas add another 107,835 square metres.

Clearing the decks

A snow clearance team will generally follow a priority map of the airfield. Bangor’s Kelly explains: “Generally speaking, the runway and taxiways are regarded as having the highest priority and it is with them that the work will begin. Once the runway and taxiways are deemed safe by the snow boss, the ramp and other areas will be next. However, the snow team generally has one employee who is always on the ramp ploughing around the gates. Bangor will use Federal Aviation Administration-approved sand for the airfield but will turn to potassium acetate if the sand has not improved the surfaces.”

Dry snow is the easiest to remove, he considers. Wet snow and ice are more difficult, but during storm events the team cannot afford to let the snow build up to more than an inch in depth. “We continually plough and scrape the operational areas during the storms and it becomes repetitive,” he remarks.

At Calgary: “Due to the tremendous variables that we face with weather here, we have a snow plan which allows for significant flexibility in the plan of attack by our airfield supervisors,” McLeod informs. “We have identified priority surfaces that coincide with our runway configuration and predominant taxi routes for that configuration. We also strongly believe in a collaborative decision-making methodology, so we activate our Snow Desk when moderate snowfall is forecast (we monitor multiple forecasts), which brings all of our key stakeholders into an operations centre so that live decisions can be made with all parties in real time.”

Like Kelly, McLeod notes that the largest challenge comes from heavy wet snow, which most commonly falls in the early autumn (September or October) and late spring (April and May).  The storms that can create such conditions are not uncommon and usually come with little notice other than ‘a chance of rain or snow’, he says.

Airports’ snow teams can differ radically in size depending on the scale of the meteorological challenge and the size and operational intensity of the gateway. During the winter months, Bangor operates two shifts that work up to 12 hours when necessary. Each shift consists of between 11 and 13 employees. Plus, the gateway will bring on about six seasonal employees during the winter operations.

Calgary International Airport has 32 airfield equipment operators working in two rotating shifts of 16 personnel. The mix is roughly 50% seasonal and 50% full time, the latter continuing to work at the gateway year-round (with summer maintenance work including tasks such as airfield paint markings renewal, grass cutting and pavement repair and patching).

Meanwhile, Geneva operates on 12-hour shifts and needs from 25 up to 50 people, depending on the intensity of the event.

Heavy machinery

Those snow clearance teams operate some impressive equipment, manufactured by the likes of Zaugg, Overaasen and US manufacturer Oshkosh. Supporting the team at Bangor is a fleet of seven Oshkosh 20-foot ploughs, two Oshkosh high-speed blowers and two Cat loaders with 30-foot blades. In just the past two years, the airport has purchased two Oshkosh sweepers, a Tyler Ice 4000 gallon de-icing truck and an Oshkosh roll-over plough to clear around airfield lighting units.

Calgary’s snow clearance team operates six Vammas PSB 5500 sweeper units, nine Airport Technologies Inc Sno-Maulers pulling Wausau Model 5222 tow brooms, five John Deere 744-K loaders with 10-metre ramp hog blades, five Oshkosh H Series snow blowers, one Hagie agricultural sprayer used for liquid chemical application and one Epoke spreader for dispersing dry chemicals (with pre-wet).  It also makes use of Freightliners with 3-metre back plough blades, giving the airport team what McLeod describes as “great flexibility depending on conditions”.

The Sno-Mauler/Wausau 5222 units were purchased as recently as 2013, as were two new 744-K loaders, and in 2014 two more new ‘H Series Oshkosh snow blowers were ordered.

Boschung is another one of the big suppliers of airport snow clearing equipment. Since last year, Geneva Airport has employed 12 Boschung Jetbrooms for snow clearance, favoured because they are “very compact and we have a lack of space”, Graber says. Boschung units are also used at Geneva for de-icing.

Plus, a total of 10 Zaugg snow ploughs of various sizes and a Zaugg snow blower are used for keeping the apron clear of snow. The Swiss gateway also employs five Rolba 3000s. “The Zaugg units are very good equipment, well-manufactured, efficient, and strongly buillt,” Graber asserts. Moreover, he also points to the company’s history of innovation and high-quality costumer service. Having bought 10 Boschung Jetbrooms over the past four years, there are no plans to acquire any more for the foreseeable future however.

Shannon’s experience

Just as important as snow clearance to the maintenance of safe operations at any airport in challenging wintry conditions is the need to keep runway, taxiway and aircraft stand surfaces free of ice. The Irish gateway of Shannon is in the fortunate position of rarely facing significant quantities of snowfall – its location at sea level and the close proximity of the offshore Atlantic Gulf Stream helping in that regard – but ice does represent a potential problem in the winter months.

Thought the airport might only get half an inch of snow or more only once every 10 years or so, temperatures can not uncommonly fall below minus 5oC, explains Shannon Airport Authority’s airport operations director, Niall Maloney. When combined with precipitation, the dangers of icing are very real.

The winter of 2009-10 was particularly harsh right across Europe, and it also struck the west coast of Ireland with full force. While Shannon coped well and remained open throughout the cold months, lessons were learned. The airport has switched to potassium acetate, for example, as its preferred de-icing chemical, while it also invested in new spraying equipment as well as new vehicle units both to clear snow and to de-ice pavement areas. The capriciousness of weather patterns being what they are, much of that equipment hasn’t had to be used since, but it remains usefully in reserve.

Dedicated team

Shannon is an international airport, and one that operates 24 hours a day. By the standards of some others, though, it is relatively small and without huge financial resources. But its small snow and ice team does dedicated work, Maloney points out, its members not only de-icing when necessary during regular daytime working hours but also being on call during the hours of darkness to offer their skills as required.

Furthermore, he explains, the team will not only de-ice when it becomes absolutely necessary, but will begin the process – in proactive, cautionary fashion – as soon as temperatures fall below 3oC and there is any danger of ice forming.

De-icing of surfaces is prioritised, in the order of Shannon’s 3.2km asphalt runway, followed by taxiways, aircraft stands, passenger walkways and finally landside paved areas, with aircraft safety of course always being the number one priority. Friction testing is carried out by the airport’s fire service to ensure that the relevant paved areas are at all times safe for aircraft operations.

Given that in snowy weather Shannon’s flying operations can actually increase in intensity – as aircraft are diverted from landing at more heavily affected airports nearby – clearly the gateway has a handle on the challenges of a harsh Irish winter.

In winter, southern Germany’s Munich International Airport typically performs snow clearances between once and eight times each day. According to the gateway’s operator – Flughafen München GmbH (FMG) – it is feeling the effects of climate change. Extreme weather events are more frequent. Continuous snowfall is rare, but Munich is experiencing large amounts of snow within shorter periods, Munich’s head of winter operations, Alfons Breiteneicher explains.

An area (including runways, taxiways, aprons and roads) of about 4 million square meters has to be cleared. As many as 540 people can be involved in one way or another over a season, Breiteneicher says, including 80 FMG employees and 460 employees from 22 different contractors. The 80 FMG employees consist of three full time FMG workers, 37 employees performing snow removal in addition to their own work (office workers, clerks, electricians, and so on) and 40 temporary employees with unlimited and fixed-term contracts.

A large fleet of vehicles is available for that big team’s use this coming 2014-15 winter season. Just for the runways and taxiways, Munich has 24 air blast (blower) sweepers, six trucks equipped with snow ploughs, two sprayers, two multi-use de-icers and one granulate spreader.

For the apron and other surfaces, FMG can turn to 88 tractors with snow ploughs and sweepers, three multi-use de-icers and one small truck with a snow plough, sprayer and spreader.

Finally, for what FMG describes as ‘snow transport’, ie the collection and transport of the snow from apron, taxiways and runways to areas of disposal, it operates seven snow loaders and 30 trucks, as well as two snow cats and five wheel loaders.

Last year, FMG purchased three new snow loaders, while for the next winter season it is taking delivery of nine new blower sweepers, each with a clearing width of 5 metres per vehicle.