Tuesday, February 25, 2014

At Nordic Airports, Defying the Snow is Good Sport: In Nordic Countries, Skill at Keeping Airports Open Through Blizzards Is a Point of Pride

The Wall Street Journal
By  Daniel Michaels
Updated Feb. 25, 2014 10:35 p.m. ET

Airports in much of the world get occasional snow, and North America has taken a beating this season. But in Nordic countries, where winter can last six months and airplane deicing starts in August, skill at operating through sleet, snow and frost is vital for business and is a point of pride.

Stockholm's Arlanda Airport sets a goal of never succumbing to winter. "That's also the sport of it," says Arlanda operations head Lena Rökaas.

Her team spends months conducting off-season drills. But when her squad's big day came in December, the Swedish manager worried she and her colleagues wouldn't be able to handle what was coming at them.

Undaunted, her crew headed out in tight formation as if "getting ready for battle," Ms. Rökaas says. They plowed relentlessly ahead and protected a perfect 50-year record: Arlanda stayed open despite getting socked by more than a foot of snow.

Swedish crews wax nostalgic about a 1968 blizzard when Arlanda was the only Western European airport operating and arriving planes parked on one of its two runways. "It's a lovely story," says Arlanda spokeswoman Susanne Rundström.

Nordics call it "snowhow," a mix of massive machines, finely honed plowing patterns and constant practice.

"We consider ourselves almost world champions," says Heini Noronen-Juhola, vice president for aviation and safety at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Helsinki has developed more than 20 clearing routines, each linked to specific weather conditions. Ms. Noronen-Juhola considers the playbook "our big secret."

As at other Nordic airports, Helsinki's 120 maintenance people spend summers choreographing equipment. They usually clean tarmacs with diagonal rows of vehicles, sometimes referred to as a conga line. Each machine shoves snow to the vehicle behind it and ultimately off the edge of the runway. Drivers follow their maneuvers precisely so air controllers, who also know the routines, can time arriving and departing flights down to the minute.

"It's like dancing," says Ms. Noronen-Juhola.

In winter, her crews work round-the-clock shifts, like firefighters, and hustle at the first sight of snow. Helsinki airport last closed in 2003, for 30 minutes, because of snow and air-traffic-control problems. Like other Nordic airports, it frequently cuts capacity and cancels some flights.

Another Nordic secret: pushing producers for absurdly powerful equipment. Oslo Airport runs two of the world's largest self-propelled snowblowers, built by Norwegian airport-equipment maker Øveraasen AS. Only two other of the TV2000 units operate at airports; they, too, are in Norway.

The 2,000-horsepower machines can shoot 10,000 tons of snow an hour more than 150 feet from the tarmac. "It's like throwing a car every second," says Henning Bråtebæk, operations director at Oslo Airport.

Helsinki Airport pushed Finnish snow specialist Vammas in the 1990s to develop some of the first machines able to plow, sweep and blow snow simultaneously. Several of these machines can clear a runway in about 10 minutes, a job that a generation ago took half an hour.

Back then, runway clearing required many different machines. Opening scenes of the 1970 disaster film "Airport" show assorted tractor-size vehicles tackling a blizzard, including some that spit fire to melt ice.

Today, all-in-one cleaners are about as long as a locomotive. Most have two mighty engines, one for motion and the other to sweep and blow. They can run for hours without stopping—and Nordics keep going.

"They don't go for breaks—there's big pride in that," says Ms. Rökaas in Stockholm of her drivers, who mainly use Swiss snow equipment from Aebi Schmidt Holding AG. "Someone goes out and gives them coffee."

The machines can run for so long that producers have to worry about drivers' comfort. Vammas boasts that its cabs are so cozy, with their heated seats, frost-resistant windows, stereo speakers and vibration-free suspension, that operators are comfortable in T-shirts.

Over the past decade, combination machines have caught on at airports across Canada and the U.S. After a crippling winter storm in 2011, frequently sweltering Dallas-Fort Worth Airport bought 10 Vammas machines for about $1 million each. Vammas was acquired by Fortbrand Services Inc. of Plainview, N.Y., in 2010. It manufactures Vammas machines in Finland and in the U.S.

"They look very cool," says airport spokesman David Magaña.

When snow was forecast in December, the airport prepared to unleash its yellow monsters. Unfortunately, what arrived was sleet that landed and froze, creating "a hockey rink from here to Tennessee," says Mr. Magaña. With snowplows offering little help against ice, nearly 90% of flights were canceled for a day.

Still, versatile Nordic machines have been so popular that other big vehicle makers have jumped in. American truck maker Oshkosh Corp , based in wintry Wisconsin, touts its new multifunction machine as "a rolling 81,000-pound Swiss Army Knife." Product manager Les Crook boasts that its joystick control, covered in buttons for each function, "is just like a Game Boy."

Not to be outdone, Øveraasen last year unveiled a new product line with the curvy lines of a sports car and cabs that rise like a cherry-picker to give drivers greater visibility. "The futuristic design is a real eye-catcher," says an Øveraasen brochure. Bård Eker, whose industrial-design firm Øveraasen hired for the new line, says his company refrained from making the look too futuristic for fear of scaring off customers.

While big equipment helps get the job done, veterans say quality snow time is critical. Oslo Airport, for example, gets hit on average 60 days each winter. "We get a lot of practice," says Mr. Bråtebæk.

But this year, as the U.S. has experienced a Nordic winter, Northern Europe has been unusually warm. That worries Ms. Rökaas in Stockholm. "The worst thing for these people is when there is no snow," she says of drivers, who she fears might get bored and quit.

As for the future, officials are counting on snow and dreaming up new ways to prepare.

"We would love to have a roof on the airport," says Ms. Noronen-Juhola in Helsinki. "It's a great idea."

Source:  http://online.wsj.com

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