Snow Patrol

Heathrow’s airside operations safety unit (AOSU) is responsible for de-icing the runways and moving areas, and clearing those areas of snow where necessary. (All-BAA)

Snow is the bane of airport efficiency.  How do they cope at London Heathrow?  Words by Stephen Vaughan.

Heathrow’s airside operations safety unit (AOSU) is responsible for de-icing the runways and moving areas, and clearing those areas of snow where necessary. (All-BAA)

As a country England tends to make heavy weather of winter conditions.  Snow, when it comes, brings the country to its knees: bus services
are disrupted, trains cancelled and roads closed.  Even the London Underground suffers.  For a nation where snow is the exception rather than the rule, it does not make economic sense to invest in the volume of vehicles and technology necessary to keep everything working during these atypical blizzards and flurries.
At Heathrow Airport the outlook is rather different.  Keeping runways and taxiways ice-free and clear of snow during the winter months keeps delays to a minimum, aids tourism and maintains the airport’s reputation.  Steve Cavinder is Transport Manager for Heathrow Airport Limited and the man responsible for the airport’s snow team.
“The airside operations safety unit [AOSU] is responsible for de-icing the runways and moving areas, and clearing those areas of snow where necessary,” he says.  “We use a system called OpenRunway [see sidebar on page 14] provided by the Met Office.  That keeps us alerted over both a short- and long-term period on what the weather is likely to be.”
"In many ways it is better for us if the snow arrives at night, because we don’t have a flying programme then, meaning access to the runways and taxiways is a lot easier." Steve Cavinder, BAA Heathrow.

Every December the AOSU undergoes refresher training on BAA’s diverse fleet.  On top of that all vehicles are serviced and the Snow Plans are reviewed with the airport community to ensure there is a common and coherent strategy in the event of severe weather.  Heathrow invests approximately £800,000 (US$1.2m) a year to ensure the airport is well prepared for the winter months.  For the current winter season three new de-icing vehicles have been delivered, increasing their capacity from 31,000 litres to 57,000 of de-icing liquid.
Cavinder’s team is onsite 24/7.  This means that if there is a snowstorm in the small hours they can act fast.  “In many ways it is better for us if the snow arrives at night,” says Cavinder.  “This is because we don’t have a flying programme then, meaning access to the runways and taxiways is a lot easier.”
 
Modus Operandi
Thanks to OpenRunway the AOSU will almost always know when snow is on its way.  The team’s first task is to do what they can to prevent it settling by anti-icing the runways, taxiways and manoeuvring areas.  Most of their de-icing equipment is supplied by AEBI Schmidt, enabling BAA to consolidate on one particular well-established manufacturer.  Most of the time the use of de-icing liquid is sufficient.  It is only when the snow is heavy and persistent that the snow sweepers are brought out.  Heathrow has two types of mid-mounted runway sweepers: the P17H supplied by Bucher Schorling and the Danline 2000 manufactured by Eagle Airfield Equipment.  The order of sweeping priority is runways first, taxiways second and manoeuvring sites third.  In order to shift snow from the runway eight of these vehicles will move in echelon, pushing the snow onto the grassed areas at the side.  Contractors are then introduced to physically remove the snow.
Heathrow’s ability to counter the affects of Britain’s winters is impressive.  During a particularly heavy snowstorm in February 2009 when almost all other UK airports closed for the duration of the afternoon, Heathrow’s runways were shut for only 45 minutes.  “Our team really is geared up to keep the operation going, and as safely as possible,” says Cavinder.
 
Environmental Awareness
In 2009 Heathrow began a new project; the recovery and future re-use of aircraft de-icer, glycol.  Steve Cavinder is, by his own admission, quite excited about it.  “As well as collecting excess glycol we are storing it up with a view to recycling it in the future,” he says.  “That we are able to recover it rather than letting it enter our draining system could make a big difference to the local environment.”
The team members’ first task is to do what they can to prevent snow settling by anti-icing the runways, taxiways and manoeuvring areas. Most of their de-icing equipment is supplied by AEBI Schmidt, enabling BAA to consolidate on one particular well-established manufacturer. (BAA)

Unlike in the United States, glycol recovery is not part of UK aviation legislation.  BAA’s decision to act of its own volition is simply in keeping with its long-term environmental goals.  “In order to collect it we have had a standard road sweeper modified by fitting a large suction box to it,” says Cavinder.  “Our operators now go onto a stand and use the vehicle almost like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up the left-over glycol.  We have a large tank that we can store it in and are currently looking at ways in which it could be reused.”
For the rest of the year the AOSU team members are responsible for maintaining the airfield.  This includes removing rubber from the runway, keeping the tarmac free of objects and debris, and cleaning the runway lights.  Yet it is during the harsh winter months that they truly come into their own.  “When they are out in the very cold weather I make sure they are looked after, fed and watered,” says Cavinder.  “I really look out for their welfare and make sure they are comfortable.  They are the ones at the coalface and without them Heathrow would come to a standstill.”
As this edition of Airports International closed for press in January the UK was in the middle of another spell of icy weather which affected most of the country’s airports.  While in the process of coping with the harsh conditions Mr Cavinder said: “While the past few weeks have been challenging, we have successfully implemented our snow plan and the airport continues to remain open.”
 
 
Open Runway
The Met Office has been forecasting the weather for over 150 years.  It is also the only provider of low-level UK weather forecasts for the Civil Aviation Authority.  Understanding the weather is key to making sure schedules run on time.  This is why it has created a system that is now used at most of the UK’s major airports.  OpenRunway is a website that affords airport executives a snapshot of the status of their runways.  Not only can it forecast snow, frost and freezing fog, but it can also provide colour-coded hourly summaries of the localized weather on the runway.  Hourly precision forecast graphs that include wind speed and temperature are achieved through the use of multiple sensors at the airport.  This information can also be sent via email by forecasters who can interpret the conditions at the airport on your behalf.
 
 

Every December the AOSU undergoes refresher training on BAA’s diverse fleet. On top of that all vehicles are serviced and the Snow Plans are reviewed with the airport community to ensure there is a common and coherent strategy in the event of severe weather. (BAA)

A Day in the Life of a ‘Snow Man’

During periods of snowfall Heathrow’s Steve Cavinder is the go-to guy.  “It’s not unusual for me to be woken in the middle of the night and asked for guidance,” he says.  “But that comes with the territory.  I’ll always be available to give advice and direction, and to deal with any issues that might arise.  On an average day when there is snow I will most commonly start with a phone call on the way into work to get the lowdown on what’s been going on in the night.  I’ll need to know what vehicles have been out and what products we’ve put down, and I will want to check what our product stocks are and whether we need to order any more.  Depending on what happens during the course of the day, I’ll be keeping our local business recovery team updated with news on staff availability and vehicle availability, de-icing resources and the latest information on stocks of de-icer and orders that are due in.  That will take up most of my day.  I will remain in constant contact with my team to guarantee they are comfortable with the arrangements that have been made and ensuring that we have all bases covered.  For instance, if a vehicle becomes unserviceable for any reasons we have staff onsite to repair it.  It is very much an operational day, trying to keep people informed of what is going on.  There would be very few opportunities for me to do anything that would constitute my normal day.