No Reason To Say ‘No’

Zurich Airport claims it is always prepared for winter and has never had to close its runways due to weather disruption.

Zurich Airport claims that it has never had to close because of weather disruption, despite a string of cold winters. (All images: ZRH)

Switzerland’s biggest international hub, Zurich Airport, handles 22.9 million passengers and has an average of almost 269,000 air traffic movements a year.  Sitting 1,411ft (430m) above sea level, the airport is susceptible to cold winters and has an impressive array of seasonal equipment to deal with winter weather disruption.
The airport claims that it invests 1.5 million CHF (US$1.6m) on its annual upkeep, which includes winter operations, and as Bruno Fitze – Head Vehicle Center, Airfield Maintenance – tells me, winter procedures run from mid-October to mid-April every year.  In 1998, the airport asked Dr Stephan Bader from Switzerland’s official weather service MeteoSchweiz to predict the winter climates for the next two decades.  Thirteen years on, Dr Bader’s estimations have proved true.  With snow every year – including blizzard conditions – Zurich’s record winter of 2005/2006 saw 63 operational days to deal with seasonal disruption, and conditions in recent years have come close to that figure.  Despite this, the airport insists it has never been forced to close its runways during the winter.

Weighing 19 tonnes, the Boschung Jetbroom costs 800,000 CHF (US$864,000) and can remove snow at a speed of 18.6mph (30km/h).

Snow Team

The airport’s Snow Committee has been established for several years and its members include handling agents, airlines, MeteoSchweiz, SkyGuide and Zurich Airport.  It discusses the problems that could arise through wintery circumstances at the airport and agrees on mutual solutions.  “As long as we communicate, we can handle winter,” says Mr Fitze.  Zurich also keeps regular contact with Scandinavian, German, Austrian, Danish and Dutch airports in order to informally collect information on the best ways to deal with winter disruption.
During the season, a snow team of 140 employees, most of them already working within the airport’s Airfield Maintenance, are partnered with 200 on-call, third-party members.  “When we [the airport] know a night could be icy, those parties are aware of it,” states Mr Fitze, adding:  “We have contracts with different companies, such as farmers and drivers.”  When confronted with the threat of a snow event, the hub’s Airport Authority decides when and where it is necessary to deploy the snow team.  The Authority needs to have good communication and coordination with the Snow Committee in order to tackle conditions on the airport’s three runways, multiple taxiways and apron.  Furthermore, it has the last word on all winter operations and, if not satisfied with the results, the snow team is sent back out to clear the area again.
The snow team has several targets:  “We want – and we have to – guarantee that one runway has been cleared of snow and de-iced within 30 minutes, including the taxiways, of course.  We have to ensure that air traffic and our winter operations traffic can work alongside each other; we cannot stop any air traffic during our winter operations,”  says Mr Fitze.  He continues:  “It is easier to do this at night when there is no air traffic [due to the night-flight ban] but during the day it is a challenge.  We also have to guarantee that a minimum of one runway is always open, independent of the weather.  There is no reason to say ‘no’.”
Zurich Airport’s winter operations fleet is worth an astonishing 25 million CHF (US$27m) and is subject to constant appraisal and upgrade.  The vehicles are stored in groups inside a facility near Airfield Maintenance to retain their quality and avoid unnecessary weathering from the elements, extending their lifespan to an anticipated 20 to 25 years.  The airport is exceptionally proud of its snowploughs and snowblowers, which enable speedy and effective clearing.  Sixteen Boschung Jetbroom 9600AHs Runway have been added to the fleet within the last three years.  The fleet now contains 24 Jetbrooms in total.  The new vehicles have a plough and broom width of 27.6ft (8.4m) and 19.7ft (6m) respectively.  Weighing 19 tonnes, the Jetbroom costs 800,000 CHF (US$864,000) and can remove snow at a speed of 18.6mph (30km/h).
Zurich’s record winter of 2005/2006 created 63 duty days for the winter operations team.

At a more costly 2 million CHF (US$2.2m) each, two Overaasen TV1520 snowblowers are also members of the winter operations fleet.  Manufactured to work at the same speed as the Jetbrooms, the TV1520s can remove up to 10,000 tonnes of snow per hour.  The airport has revealed that one additional snowblower of this type has also been ordered for delivery in June 2012.
For de-icing purposes, the airport also has four Küpper Weisser vehicles, also from Boschung.  They employ an innovative combination of both solid and liquid de-icing stock, with a capacity of 11,000 litres of Aviform L50 and 3,500kg of Aviform S-Solid.  It has a dispersion width of 105ft (32m) and costs 600,000 CHF (US$648,000).
Other members of the fleet include four Boschung Pony vehicles and five container trucks, which can hold 1,589ft3 (45m3) of snow.  In cases of heavy snow, the airport is able to order 40 additional trucks and wheel-loaders to assist with clearance.  Zurich Airport has also developed modifications to a Nissan Navarra 2.5 XE KC pick-up truck.  This vehicle is now fully equipped for breakdown intervention and recovery of the entire fleet, including the hefty ploughs and blowers.  The airport reports that most of its winter vehicles can be employed for other tasks during warmer seasons.
Zurich enforces a strict regime to deal with winter disruption. Snow teams undergo frequent staff training, which is accompanied by detailed instructions about the formations (the combination of people and machinery) used to clear weather hazards.  Web-based training, developed by Crossmotion, is used to improve and renew staff expertise.  Mr Fitze comments:  “Drivers from third parties have been introduced to web-based training to ensure that they have a really good education about the trucks and the equipment on them.”
He continues:  “Two years ago, we developed a special film where we explain the Jetbroom and the de-icers.  It takes half an hour to an hour, depending on what the driver already knows, and the trainee needs to complete certain activities and multiple choice questions.  Finally, there is a test where we discover how they performed.  If that person has not passed the test, we contact them in order to instruct and educate them to a better standard of knowledge.
The airport anticipates 7,000 de-icings every winter season, and has provided two remote de-icing pads for the purpose.

“The advantages of that web-based training is that the employees can always go back to it to remind themselves of how to do something.  For example, if a person does not begin operations until the January of a season, they can be re-educated.  We used to only have ‘hands-on’ training once each season but this way we can instruct staff more often and ensure that even new employees have a certain level of knowledge.”
Mr Fitze explains how each member of the snow team must complete one part of training and then continue to gain specialist knowledge, depending on the equipment they will be using in their tasks.
During winter disruption, the snow team is divided into eleven groups and a total of around 120 employees may be working at any time – the other 220 staff serve on different shifts, allowing for round-the-clock operations.  Groups A and B are identical and consist of one coordinator, seven Jetbrooms, two single ploughs, one Overaasen 1520 and one Küpper Weisser de-icing truck.  In formation, these groups can each clear half a runway at a width of 98ft (30m) and so need only move up and down a runway once each way to clear it.  Alternatively, both groups can work together simultaneously to remove all snow and ice from a runway.
Group C removes snow and ice from the runways and the taxiways, whereas Group D is used to clear the apron.  Group F Landside and Group F Airside are entrusted with the task of clearing all roads, especially those leading up to the airport which passengers will use.  Other groups within the team are responsible for clearing taxiways, transporting snow and de-icing.  The latter may work without the assistance of ploughs.  Each group must be led by a Zurich Airport employee although other additional drivers may come from other companies.
Mr Fitze said the airport’s formations rarely change, except when a new development requires it, for example, this winter’s operations have been altered after Dock B was reopened on December 1.
Although the airport has de-icing equipment for both tarmac surfaces and aircraft, these two processes are handled by different entities.  Urs Haldimann, Deputy Head Airport Operations of Airport Steering and De-icing Coordinator, explains the airport’s independent aircraft de-icing procedure, for which Zurich is responsible for providing the infrastructure.  Along with the capability for on-stand de-icing, the airport also has two remote de-icing pads, Charlie and Foxtrot.  “They have three lanes each,” says Mr Haldimann.  “So simultaneously, we can de-ice six aircraft up to the size of an ICAO Type C – Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 – or four wide-body aircraft.  We can de-ice everything on the pads, but there are a few exceptions:  propeller aircraft and those with engines on the tail are usually de-iced on-stand.”  Around 75% of aircraft are de-iced on the remote pads per year, with the remaining 25% on-stand.
Swiss International Air Lines believes that the airport is “well maintained and prepared.”

As EU Regulations state that de- and anti-icing are contained within handling responsibilities, these procedures are delegated to handling agents Swissport (85%) and AAS Nordic Aero (15%).  Swissport has 14 vehicles for the task, ten of which are employed on the remote de-icing pads.
“The flight crew request aircraft de-icing from us via VHF [Very High Radio Frequency].  We check the availability of remote or on-stand de-icing and then we feed the information system with a code that is transmitted automatically to Swissport’s systems.  There is no communication from our side needed; from the data, the stakeholders know what is going to happen and what needs to be done,” explains Mr Haldimann.  Zurich works with Swissport’s drivers to inform them of location and measurements for the task.
The airport uses Type 1 Fluid for de-icing and Type 4 for anti-icing.  These fluids, supplied by Kilfrost, are stored in underground tanks and are connected to the filling station at the remote pads via a pipeline.  Enough fluid is stocked to ensure 3,500 de-icings (50% of the expected annual amount).
The airport also considers environmental concerns in its winter operations.  In terms of de-icing fluid, Mr Haldimann states that the stock is collected into tanks after being used on the remote pads.  “According to the TOC (Total Organic Carbon) levels, we can bring the fluid out to the fields or other areas that we have chosen and use sprinklers to put it into the ground,” he says.  “Microbes within these special areas can break down the fluid and remove the harmful substances.
A total of 120 employees can be required to work at any one time during winter disruption.

“We can also stock the used fluid into a pool.  There we have a machine that can concentrate the glycol up to 80%.  From there, it is taken to Germany and recycled.  Other highly concentrated fluid is taken to an incineration plant and added for fermentation; this will produce gas that can be reused,” Mr Haldimann explains, adding that these processes can reduce the chances of over-contamination.  Additionally, snow which has been cleared from the airport by the winter operations team is stored in a depot large enough to hold it while it melts.
The airport has also developed a tool to ease de-icing procedures.  It is a sub-product of the Apron Control Departure Manager (ACDM), managed by the airport, and has been created to adapt traffic timings during winter disruption.  This ensures that not a minute is lost and that more accurate data is collated for an ATC user.  “The timing may be different after an aircraft has had de-icing treatment,” says Mr Haldimann.  “This tool will help us to predict delays and more accurately calculate when a flight will depart.”
A Customer’s Viewpoint
Swiss International Air Lines is Zurich Airport’s biggest customer, with approximately 360 flights carrying 38,000 passengers every day to and from the hub.  The ways in which an airport deals with winter weather is very important to any carrier, and Swiss is no exception.
The airport’s snow team guarantees that a runway will be clear of snow and ice within 30 minutes.

Stephan Ellenberger, Head of Ground Services Switzerland, comments on Zurich’s ground handling facilities:  “They are well maintained and prepared.  They test everything before the winter arrives and their snow removal equipment is very impressive.  It is superior to other stations and we saw this last winter when other airports were unable to remove snow and were closed.
“We have never had a problem with de-icing fluid stock and our handling agent always orders on time to renew it.  The basics at the airport are very good.”
Swiss believes that it provides a high level of care for its customers during times of disruption and uses social media networks like Facebook and Twitter to keep passengers informed, for example, with the heavy winter disruption of 2010/2011.  “In cases of real disruption, we support our passengers with care staff,” says Mr Ellenberger.  “For example, if there are a lot of flights cancelled, we have cabin crew who offer care and information to the customer.  They are ready to take over this duty, and I think this shows that we have motivated staff who are willing to go the extra mile at these times,” he says.
“The airline is not that big and we are flexible in reacting.  It is not usually easy to switch people among different duties but here at Swiss and Swissport, this is possible.”
Furthermore, the airline conducts a quality meeting every week, in which the last seven days are discussed and issues concerning the airline and its passengers are resolved.
Mr Ellenberger also comments on Swiss’ collaboration with other airlines:  “We exchange experiences with our Star Alliance partners, and especially within the Lufthansa Group.  We also visit each other’s hubs to learn from each other’s problems and the solutions we are working on.  Each airport looks from a different perspective at issues and sometimes there are some good ideas around.”

The winter operations fleet is worth a total of 25 million CHF (US$27m).