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Aviation: Airport adverse weather closures

Manchester Airport was closed this morning from 07:30 to 10:45 due to snow on the runways. A similar scenario played out at nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport which was shut between 07:00 and 09:50. Reports suggest four inches of wet snow fell in a fairly short period during the morning departure rush, and crews struggled to keep the concrete clear. That led to flight cancellations and delays, as well as diversions of some inbound aircraft.

This morning's snow accumulations in the northwest were the first of the year that had an impact on air travel. As the nation commences its ritual hand-wringing about its inability to deal with adverse winter weather, its worth looking at how airports in some other countries cope.

Some airports are better equipped to handle severe weather than others.

Almost all have equipment sufficient to deal only with average conditions

and most struggle when a particularly cold snap passes through.

The US Midwest is currently suffering from particularly low temperatures - records for the area but not unprecedented in aviation. So far today - and and its only 10:00 over there at the moment - 53% of the departures from Chicago O'Hare Airport (669 flights) and 52% of its arrivals (662 flights) have been cancelled. Its a similar story at nearby Chicago Midway where 62% of the planned landings and takeoffs have already been cancelled, and its major user Southwest Airlines has pretty much abandoned all operations for the day. Manchester meanwhile is running at 14% cancellations and 28% delays.

OK, the weather is much more severe in Chicago than it is in Manchester, but winters tend to be more severe there anyway. The record lows being experienced in Chicago are frequently matched in Fairbanks, Alaska or Winnepeg in Canada, and yet today there are virtually now delays at the Canadian airport.

It isn't just Chicago though. A week ago Boston Airport in the USA also almost ground to a halt as low temperatures and freezing rain produced a layer of ice on its runways which staff struggled to clear. There were plenty of cancellations, and delays of between five and seven hours became commonplace. The chaos continued for two days. Again the weather was more severe than in Manchester this morning, but it was nothing that Boston had not experienced before.

Typical winter versus severe weather

Here's the point then. Airports acquire equipment based on the typical winter weather that they experience. To buy enough to deal with exceptionally cold or snowy snaps would be uneconomic, and many vehicles would sit out of use for years on end. And then on the few occasions when extreme conditions strike, staff and clearing equipment are worked as hard as is possible. This isn't a British thing - its a global thing.

Keeping runways and taxiways is a major task that most airports only have to undertake a few times each year.

Those who moan about our airport's seeming inability to deal with inclement weather often point to places like Helsinki - or even Amsterdam - that sometimes seem to do better. Helsinki though has three runways which are not normally used to capacity. When snow clearance becomes necessary, one airstrip can be closed and the two that remain open are sufficient to handle all take offs and departures. Amsterdam has six runways. Heathrow Airport has only two runways, both of which are fully used for 95% of every day. Gatwick has only one runway. Closing a runway at either for snow clearance inevitably causes delays, and because both are so busy catching up after even a short closure is almost impossible. Furthermore, airports that experience regular cold snaps build large remote pads near runway ends where aircraft can be de-iced. There is no space for such facilities at airports like Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, meaning aircraft have to be de-iced while parked on the gates - and this in turn causes congestion because an airframe cannot be de-iced while loading and boarding is underway.

The Aviation Oracle has sat on an ice-bound aircraft, watching snow fall on the wings and on the concrete below, on more than one occasion. Concern about the likelihood of getting away on time is natural. But its really not appropriate to blame the airport or the staff. Everyone does what they can to get flights moving as expeditiously as possible. When a particularly bad snap of weather arrives sit back, try to relax, enjoy the view and be thankful you are not out there in the cold shifting the snow.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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