Cutting the ice

Iced-up aircraft

Airports in the US face heavy fines if their winter operations strategies fail to deliver. Gary Mason reports on how Detroit International responded to a critical FAA report published last year and its ground-breaking work with its main carrier on aircraft de-icing.

Iced-up aircraftHaving a carefully planned and detailed winter operations strategy is not just good business practice for airports affected by cold weather. For many there is a mandatory element to these plans that is regulated and enforced by the national aviation authority. This means that failure to fulfill a winter operations strategy or problems caused by insufficient manpower or resources such as vehicles and equipment can lead to sanctions including heavy financial penalties.

In the US last year, two airports (see box) were given fines by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over allegations of insufficient winter ops procedures. Federal Aviation Regulations require airports that operate commercial services to have “sufficient and qualified personnel to carry out their snow and ice control plans during severe weather.”

But this is easier to say than it is to do when unusually severe weather events occur. For example, during the winter season of 2013/14 super cold storms battered the eastern seaboard and the Mid West of the United States causing 19,000 flight cancellations and 76,000 delayed flights. In Detroit, which has an average yearly snowfall of 42 inches, as of February 2014, the city had seen more than 70 inches of snowfall.

Nonetheless, in November 2015, the FAA proposed a $200,000 civil penalty against Detroit’s Wayne County Airport Authority (WCAA) for allegedly failing to maintain safe airfield conditions during a November 2014 winter storm.

The FAA alleged that WCAA, which operates Detroit Metro-Wayne County International Airport (DTW), failed to follow its FAA-mandated Snow and Ice Control Plan (SICP) during the storm. As a result, it allegedly allowed various DTW airfield surfaces to become unsafe and failed to limit air carrier operations to portions of the airfield where they could safely occur.

Specifically the FAA alleged that WCAA failed to treat a taxiway and a deicing pad with deicer fluid. One commercial jet slid off the untreated taxiway and onto the grass, and a cargo jet became stranded due to icy conditions after exiting a runway. Additionally, three commercial airliners became stranded on the de-icing pad for approximately three hours each due to icy pavement conditions, the FAA alleges.

The FAA also alleged that WCAA failed to notify airlines of changing runway conditions; activate the DTW “snow desk” to coordinate snow removal operations; monitor snow removal operations and issue information about conditions affecting the runways, taxiways and ramp areas; conduct frequent runway inspections and friction tests; provide enough qualified personnel on the airfield to comply with the SICP; and issue a timely notice that a runway was closed.

In January 2014, representatives from the FAA and WCAA met to discuss concerns about winter operations at DTW. Additionally, the FAA issued a warning letter to WCAA in May 2014 for failing to comply with their SICP during a February 2014 storm.

In response to the criticisms the WCAA pointed out that there were “extraordinary circumstances” that led to the incidents highlighted in the FAA report.

It said: “The Airport Authority has an excellent history of providing a safe and secure airfield at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) and safety remains our number one priority. During two extraordinary weather events in February 2014 and November 2014, there were certain deviations from the WCAA’s Snow and Ice Control Plan.”

It stressed that the authority has already addressed and corrected its procedures in line with the FAA report recommendations.

“The events that precipitated this investigation occurred in extraordinary circumstances,” it said. “For instance, in the November 22, 2014 event, prior to the precipitation, airport maintenance applied 9,700 gallons of liquid pavement de-icer and 24 tons of “hot” sand to the airfield between 3:30 and 6 am yet the relentless subsequent ice storm created slippery conditions.

“In the February 5, 2014 event, two regional jets became stuck in snow after turning onto untreated taxiways and one private Beechcraft pilot turned onto a Fire Access Road instead of a treated taxiway as he had been instructed by the control tower.

“The Airport Authority is committed to working cooperatively among all of its departments, with its airline partners and the FAA to continue to fine-tune and improve winter weather procedures.

Over the last two snow seasons, and for the next two years, the Authority  will be adding $13 million worth of new or upgraded heavy snow and ice equipment to its winter operations fleet. Detroit Metropolitan Airport has also added nine employees to its professional maintenance team to address snow and ice control. In addition, four new operations personnel and scheduling adjustments have been added to enhance airfield monitoring during severe winter events.

As one of the biggest airports not only in the US but the world, DTW and its major carrier have developed a sophisticated winter operations and de-icing strategy that is designed to maximise cost effectiveness of de-icing operations and reduce the impact of the use of vehicles and fluids on the environment. DTW has historically been one of the top three de-icing airports in the world in terms of application and recycling.

DTW operates as the second largest hub (after Atlanta) to Delta  – the world’s biggest airline. But by working with Delta on a new de-icing strategy introduced in 2012 the airport reduced its de-icing fluid usage from a peak of nearly 2 million gallons in 2004-5 to just over 600,000 gallons in 2011-12. Because of the large and increasing number of Delta flights to and from DTW there was a requirement for more gate de-icing and less frequent use of remote pads.

The change in approach involved Delta introducing a Blend-to-temperature ADF application system. WCAA also built a $12 million sewer force-main to DWS doubling the airport’s liquid run-off treatment capacity. It also redesigned its main 22L deicing pad expanding it from 6 to 10 slots.

Delta’s $1.5 million investment in blending equipment enabled blend-to-temperature ADF ratios to be used “real time” in all de-icing truck fleet types. This allows the carrier’s entire 50-strong fleet of de-icing vehicles to be re-mixed in real time during extreme weather events.

Delta estimated that the savings introduced by the new system in terms of the percentage decrease of Type 1 fluid used per aircraft de-iced totaled 34 per cent in 2012-13 compared to 2010-11.

The new system also means that individual de-icing trucks blend percentages can be controlled from the De-Icing Pad Control Towers. There is also the opportunity to monitor live operations and provide instant feedback on de-icer spray performance – including the time taken for each aircraft and the number of gallons used. The operation is also “paperless” with all de-icing data automatically logged onto the system.

The airport says the new system has considerable environmental benefits with less de-icing fluid usage and less additives. It has also reduced airline operating costs making the airport more attractive.

A “critical” safety issue for the FAA

Aside from its report into DTW, the FAA proposed civil penalties totaling $735,000 against the City of Cleveland last September for failing to meet FAA requirements for maintaining a safe airport during winter weather.

“Snow and ice removal at our nation’s airports is a critical safety issue,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.  “We require airports to effectively manage this important responsibility.”

The FAA alleged that over a 15-month period ending in March 2015, managers at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport failed on a number of occasions to keep the airport’s runways and taxiways safe and clear of snow and ice.

Between December 30, 2013 and February 25, 2014, the FAA began three separate investigations into the airport’s alleged failure to comply with regulations:

  • Early in the morning of December 30, 2013, two commercial aircraft were disabled on taxiways because of unsafe braking conditions. Regulations require airport personnel to monitor conditions and close any pavement areas that are unsafe.  Freezing rain and drizzle had been falling for more than two hours when the airport allegedly dismissed its maintenance staff at 11 p.m. the previous evening.  No airport personnel were on duty to operate snow-removal and de-icing equipment after the two passenger flights landed.
  • On January 18, 2014, an Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting vehicle slid on ice during a training exercise and was unable to stop before crossing a line that marked the entrance to a runway. An aircraft had just begun its takeoff roll on that runway, resulting in a runway incursion.  The aircraft departed safely.
  • On February 25, 2014, airport management allegedly failed to follow the approved snow and ice control plan, resulting in unsafe conditions on the airfield. The airport was closed after one pilot reported poor to non-existent braking conditions.

After initiating those investigations, the FAA worked with airport management to update Cleveland’s snow and ice control plan.  This included establishing new procedures and adjusting schedules to ensure that sufficient personnel were available to respond to inclement weather.

On March 1, 2015, icy conditions prevented an air carrier from quickly exiting the runway.  Controllers subsequently cancelled the takeoff clearance for one flight and told the captain of another flight on final approach to go around.  During this investigation, the FAA found that, even under the updated policy, airport management allegedly had failed on 19 separate days between January 5 and March 1 to have the required number of maintenance and airport operations personnel on duty.

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