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If it snows, the team is ready: snow removal and winter operations at AVL

As children there was a sense of excitement surrounding winter weather and snow: it heralded days with no school spent playing outside in a winter wonderland. However, as adults winter weather and snow become an interruption to work and travel plans. When it comes to aviation and airport operations, snow and ice are definitely hurdles; safety is the number one priority when it comes to winter weather. Fortunately, in our area, we don’t get a lot of snow and winter weather. But when we do, AVL has systems in place to keep the runway clear and flights safely moving in spite of the snow. 


What happens when winter weather is predicted?

When a winter weather event does occur, or is imminent, it’s “all hands on deck” at AVL. Being a smaller airport, AVL only has a first shift maintenance crew of approximately 12-13 people. This means that no matter the day or time of the weather event, the whole team is called in, even if it’s outside of their regular work hours. The maintenance building is equipped with bunks and facilities to accommodate the snow removal team. But weather conditions can change quickly in western North Carolina and sometimes there isn’t advanced warning of a snow or ice storm. When snow or ice starts falling the team is quickly called into action and drops everything to assemble at the airport

The team closely watches the temperatures and monitors the forecast during the winter and when inclement weather or possible ice is predicted they are ready to respond if needed. Each winter weather occurrence is unique, and plans are made for each specific event. In our area the winter weather events, on average, usually last about 18 hours but sometimes they can extend to 3-5 days. 


Snow removal at AVL

AVL has ample snow removal equipment. There are three 18-foot snowplow trucks, one of which has a chemical spreader on the back, plus two twenty-foot brooms. There are also eighteen pieces of various snow removal equipment like snowblowers, tractors and equipment for hauling snow. After the mowing season is over, equipment is converted for snow removal and kept ready to go. 

The AVL maintenance team is responsible for clearing the main roadways on airport property, sidewalks, the airfield area (which includes the runway, taxiways and intersections) and commercial ramp. This is a large amount of surface area to keep clear, especially when there is active precipitation. The team also uses various chemicals (like liquid potassium acetate) to keep ice from forming on the pavement. There is a runway sensor system that provides information on surface and subsurface temperatures that can influence the decision on when and what type of chemical may be applied. 

The top goal is to keep the runway open so that flights are not disrupted. To safely plow the active runway, this means being in constant communication with the air traffic control tower. The team keeps the runway clear until the last flights of the day and then finally has a chance to catch some sleep until they must be up to get the runway clear before the first morning flights. 


Operations During Winter Weather Events

The maintenance team isn’t the only department who stays busy when there is winter weather. The operations team also plays a vital role and works alongside the maintenance department to keep things running safely and smoothly during the winter at AVL.

One of the key jobs the operations team performs is monitoring and reporting the conditions of the runway and airfield. The operations team issues NOTAMs (Notice To Air Missions) that provide timely, accurate information about the current conditions of the runway and airfield for pilots. But how do they assess the conditions?

The previously used method of friction testing has been replaced by the RCAM (Runway Conditions Assessment Matrix), a new method put in place by the FAA. To be compliant, airports must use this system of measuring and reporting runway conditions to provide uniform and objective data. The RCAM divides the runway into three sections (touchdown, midfield and rollout) and provides a runway condition code for each section of the runway ranging from 0-5. This is calculated by the operations team entering data, including the percentage of the runway that is not clear, into the Notice To Air Missions (NOTAM) manager, a notification system used by pilots and the FAA. The NOTAM manager then assigns a numerical value to each section of the runway. This gives pilots accurate information about the conditions of the runway. Some aircraft allow pilots to program the data into the plane’s controls and the plane can compensate for the conditions. Friction tests are sometimes still used to verify or adjust the RCAM numbers if necessary (for example, if the numbers don’t seem to match the actual conditions). 

The operations team is also responsible for monitoring conditions in other parts of the airport like sidewalks and roadways to ensure that passengers are able to safely navigate on airport property. The operations department staff man the Snow Desk that opens during any significant event. This desk allows a point of contact for the airlines and tenants to obtain information about the current conditions that may impact operations. 

Airlines are entirely responsible for cancelling or delaying flights. Each airline has different protocols that they follow. Airports are only responsible for keeping the runway clear and providing information about conditions per FAA guidelines. Airports have no say in whether a flight is cancelled or delayed. 

So how does AVL compare to larger airports when it comes to snow removal and winter operations? Other than the number of machines and personnel involved, there isn’t a big difference. AVL uses the same equipment and procedures as larger airports, but on a smaller scale. For example, a larger airport in a northern state might have the number of staff and trucks to clear the runway in one pass; conversely, AVL may need to do multiple passes. One thing all the airports have in common, regardless of size, is the goal of safety and efficiency for passengers traveling during the winter.


Let It Snow 

Keeping an airport operating during a winter weather event is a large and detailed undertaking. Obviously, the highest priority is safety for the passengers and airport crew. But the goal is to keep airport operations moving as close to normal as possible despite the weather. The AVL team works hard to take care of travelers during the winter and ensure that things move as smoothly as possible. When the weather decides to let it snow, our dedicated and hardworking teams are ready to meet the wintery challenge.