It’s a bright sunny morning in early November and the mercury is inching up to a forecasted high in the 60s as a conga line of huge yellow trucks fronted by large plows and carrying brooms repeatedly circles a secondary runway at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). To the casual observer, the scene is peculiar. What are these trucks, that appear to be the sort of vehicles used during snowstorms, doing rolling around the airfield on this lovely autumn day?
It’s training time for the PHL snow team. Just like sports teams hold camps to prep for the new season, the snow team at the airport readies for the winter weather season in a similar fashion.
“Right now, they all have had the classroom work, they’ve passed all their tests. Now, it’s getting reacquainted with the equipment,” explains Tony Alfonse, PHL Pavement and Grounds Superintendent who oversees snow removal ops. “They’re re-learning the equipment; they haven’t seen this stuff because we had hardly any snow last year. So, they go out and do maneuvers and they get reacquainted with our formations, what to look for. Also, it’s good for the equipment because it’s been sitting all summer. So now you run it and you find out the little problems. Maybe weather caused some kind of issue or something got broken. We run it, get the problems worked out. I call it the summer bugs. Fleet takes care of those issues so when it does snow, the equipment and our people should be ready to go.”
The PHL snow team – a proud group of workers who take care of all the plowing, brooming, shoveling and surface treatment to keep the airport open and functional during snowstorms – have been preparing for the inevitable winter weather visits by Mother Nature. Alfonse’s checklist includes making sure the vast fleet of snow removal equipment is functional, the supplies of liquid and solid deicer, sand, and rock salt are sufficient, teams are organized, long-range forecasts are studied, and the crews get familiar again with the carefully choreographed process of clearing snow from over 30 million square feet of runways and taxiways.
Alfonse brings 21 years of snow team experience at PHL to the mix. Those include the two snowiest winters – 78.7 inches in 2009-10 and 68 inches in 2013-14 -- and some of the largest snowfalls on record in Philadelphia. Dennis Jackson, a Heavy Equipment Operator, is a veteran of 13 winters at PHL, nine of them driving a plow. The training is a welcome activity especially considering that there wasn’t much snow ops happening in Philadelphia’s snow-starved winter season of 2019-20.
“Training now and then refreshes everything,” said Jackson, who drives one of the multi-function trucks. “There was a couple of key things I had to think and remember when I got in there because I haven’t done it consistently. The training helps you remember the functions you have to do. Because this is a multi-function, there’s a whole lot of different buttons you have to turn on and off to get each function to work and there’s a certain procedure you have to do. That’s what you have to drill in your head, so we keep going over and over it until it gets locked into your head. When I got back in there a couple of weeks ago there were a couple of things I had to go over myself for a couple minutes because I was trying to remember where was the button to turn on this. I been driving heavy equipment a long time, so it doesn’t take me long to get back in the swing of things.”
“In real conditions no matter how much you train, you’re going to forget about things so we try to get repetitive,” Alfonse added. “It’s almost that muscle memory of where the controls are that you can hit it while you’re looking out the front window while driving to where it’s almost second nature. It’s getting reacquainted with that and starting to remember this is how it is and how we need to be. They haven’t seen this equipment in 9 or 10 months, now you’re coming back to it and it’s like yeah, that’s where that button is, that’s what this does, this is how the steering wheel reacts in this condition.
“It’s bright and sunny out and you can see everything. It’s perfect flying conditions. Again, they’re out there re-learning the equipment, how it’s going to respond and the different controls. We do train when it rains also. The only time we can’t train is when it’s foggy. One of the reasons we like to train at night is because the airfield looks completely different. You do kind of simulate not perfect conditions visibly.”
The idea of driving a snowplow on a runway or one of those cool multi-function trucks with the cute nicknames like “Arctic Fox,” “No Snow, No Show,” “Time Bandit,’ and “Storm Breaker” may appear romantic, but it’s not easy and requires a lot of knowledge and skill. Before anyone is allowed to get in one of these machines, they must take part in intense classroom training.
“One is FAA airfield and operations rules and regulations, how to drive on the airfield, what the different lighting and paint markings are, what the different signs mean,” Alfonse explains. “They basically need to know what a pilot needs to know when he’s traveling on the ground. Also, how we do the plowing, our formations, explaining why we are in a formation, what happens when we’re in this formation, how to push snow left or right and where we’re putting the snow. So, it’s explaining how and why we do plowing. The third thing is how to drive the vehicle, how it reacts and what you need to look for, how to drive in icy, snowy conditions, emergency stopping, different speeds to travel.”
After the classroom training, it’s practice and more practice and finally invaluable experience.
“Snow removal is a group of individuals,” notes Alfonse. “The supervisors are the group leaders who are actually out doing the training. We utilize our equipment operators to actually train people. Over the years, you learn to do best practices, what works and what doesn’t work. If it does work, we keep going with it, if it doesn’t work, we throw it out. If somebody says, this will work, we try it out. Best practices have always been best for us and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
Jackson, the veteran heavy equipment operator, agrees that there is no substitute for the repetitive drills and know how gained through real-time snow removal ops and he likes sharing what he’s learned with his colleagues.
“I like showing new people the ins and outs of how to do something better and key points they can pick up,” said Jackson, who has been on the job during the snowiest winters on record in Philadelphia. “Say, backing up. You have to learn how to back up so I have key points that I show them to help them back up. Everybody’s not adjusted to using their mirrors to backing up a long trailer so I show them different ways to help themselves to do it and then they can decide which way to do it.
“You have to take your time and you have to know the airfield or you’ll end up getting lost or you might run into something,” he noted. “When you’re out there at night, you have to be very cautious. You have to know your surroundings and you have to look out for everything, the aircraft, your fellow drivers. They may not see you or you may not see them so you got to be cautious about everything.
“I might tell somebody to back up or speed up a little bit if they’re too far back because if it’s snowing out there you might not know what the person in front of you might do. They might make a short stop and if you’re too close or going too fast, you might hit them. Just keep your distance.”
Like everything in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted snow team prep at PHL from budget tightening to staffing and social distancing restrictions. For starters, there’s a hiring freeze and staffing constraints mean that Alfonse’s unit won’t be able to get help from other shops that normally allow their people to assist with snow duty. On top of that, social distancing guidelines need to be adhered to. All of which have compelled changes to the usual way of planning and the eventual carrying out of snow ops.
“We’re not going to be doing the airfield the way we usually do it,” Alfonse explained. “Usually we would have 14 multi-function pieces out, they would be concentrating on the main runways and taxiways. When we have our secondary team, which we call our priority taxiway team, while the priority team is doing the runway, the priority taxiway team would be doing the high-speed exits off the runway so we could get on and off the runway in 15 or 20 minutes. Now, it’s going to take us a little longer because we’re not going to have that secondary taxiway team. The third team was what we called the Hot Shot team. They mainly take care of problem areas that come up, something that needs to get done right away and also keeping two main taxiways clear. We will have that team ready this year, but that’s probably going to be cut in half.
“Our plan this year is to have all the shifts in when it’s actively snowing. Once it stops actively snowing, we’re going to go back to our regular shifts. Any cleaning that needs to be done will be done on a regular shift. We’re only going to be utilizing the Pavement and Grounds shift. Each team has three different groups that work within them; we’re only going to have two groups this year. The priority will be the main runways; the other two (secondary) runways, we’ll get to them when we can.”
In pre-pandemic snowstorms, there can be up to 90 personnel on hand at any time driving equipment both on the airfield and landside. Alfonse expects that number to be less than half that this winter season.
“You have to prioritize your work, what really needs to be done and what can be put on the back burner. I imagine we’re going to be doing snow that way,” he said. “We’re not going to be pressed for time because departures and arrivals are down so we’re not as busy as we used to be so we might be able to get away with just having two runways open for an extended period of time. Keeping the two main runways open is going to be our priority. Then we’ll see what’s going to be our priority next. The pandemic has made us prioritize our work and put fires out.”
Due to various restrictions, training is taking place on shifts as opposed to working groups. In addition, a hiring freeze and staffing limitations have precluded bringing in new personnel.
“Obviously, we don’t have our full team in,” Alfonse said. “The bad part of doing your training per shift instead of all together is when it does snow, you’re going to merge these operators all together. We didn’t work as a team this year, we worked as a shift. That may be a challenge. But I think they’re ready. They’re always going to be ready.”
Meanwhile, Alfonse and his team continue to prepare for winter weather. The airport’s airfield snow removal equipment includes 43 pieces consisting of the multi-function trucks with plowing and brooming capabilities, snow blowers, snow plows, loaders, and runway deicers. There are an additional 109 pieces of airside equipment operated by contractors to clear aprons, tenant gate and cargo areas and melt snow. Which pieces and how many of them get deployed in any event depends upon the type of precipitation (dry vs. wet snow), quantity of snow, temperatures and storm duration.
In addition to the airside equipment, the airport has 20 pieces including salt trucks, pickup trucks and small tractors with plows to clear landside roadways and parking areas. There are an additional 25 pieces including backhoes and dump trucks operated by contractors to support PHL snow removal ops. Another 20 pieces of backhoes, dump trucks and pickup truck plows are used by operators contracted by the Parking Authority, car rental facilities and other tenants.
As the airport awaits the first winter event, it has stockpiled 1,100+ tons of salt, 243 tons of sand, 74,600 gallons of liquid deicer plus 3 loaded deicer trucks, 22 metric tons of solid deicer and 4,500 gallons of brine.
Thanks to the trace amounts of snow from the 2019-20 winter season, PHL was able keep supplies in stock. Early forecasts are predicting a mild 2020-21 winter, and that would be very welcome if it verifies.
“I’m hoping and praying for a no snow winter,” Alfonse said. “I did see that and I am hoping it follows through. If there was ever a year I didn’t want it to snow, this year I really do not want any snow and have to deal with all this. The bad part about not having any snow is that our operators don’t get the experience. If you have one or two seasons of that, you’re almost starting fresh again. I’m going to be a little optimistic this year the way things are going I’m actually training people on equipment I normally wouldn’t train them on. Now, I’m going to have more people with more experience on what different equipment they can operate. Also since we’re not going to be hard-pressed to have all the runways open if it does snow, we’re actually going to have a perfect classroom for these folks to really work on the smaller taxiways, where to place snow. We’re not going to be under that gun to hurry up and get done. We can actually take the time to work with them and explain this is why we are doing things this way.”
Whatever Mother Nature may decide to bring this winter, the PHL team stands ready and committed to getting the job done to keep the airport open and operational.
“I look at it as doing a service by getting that runway clean,” Jackson said. “I like getting out there and I like to keep busy. I feel good about it when I go out there. If it’s a lot of snow then I just set my mind that I have to do this and I feel proud. It’s part of my job and I like doing my job.”