How Does PHL Prep for a Snowstorm?

The Department of Aviation’s winter preparation process begins at the end of September. The first task is making sure that the airports' FAA documents are up-to-date. Together with the training unit, Compliance Training Superintendent John Glass will go over the documents to ensure that the training guidelines and guidance sheet for the other departments are current and that any necessary changes have been made. The Training Department will then meet with snow duty personnel and go over the guidance sheet, setting priorities for the equipment used for operations and maintenance. The  Operations team will also check websites to track storms and the process of issuing field condition reports. Apart from being inspected, primed, and calibrated, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) Operations will perform periodic training on the friction tester and provide initial training to all new hires.  

Operations also works with Pavement and Grounds (P&G) to provide staff with training as part of the operations procedures. P&G then provides equipment training and classroom instruction for its employees. In order to give drivers time to practice driving up and down the runways and clearing snow, P&G takes students out on the airfield at night when the runways are closed. As they're doing that, Operations staff are onsite to watch and provide feedback. Both departments continue to do this in the lead-up to the first snow event. Depending on driver availability, those trainings are scheduled every other week so that students are ready before the weather turns cold. The Operations unit will conduct refresher training by visiting the airfield and assisting with the coordination of activities during the snow event, too.   

When the forecast indicates that snow is expected, the members of the Operations and Maintenance teams begin examining the weather to determine what might be happening and when it will start. Airside Operations Superintendent Wallace DuBois usually begins by reviewing the personnel levels for Airport Operations and other related matters. He makes sure that PHL vehicles are serviced and are ready for use. The PHL Operations team arranges meetings with the airlines and FAA prior to the snow falling so that the airport’s team can examine the air traffic conditions and any programs, delays, or restrictions the FAA may have in place due to weather, as well as airline flight cancellations and aircraft parking needs.  

What happens during the snowstorm?  

By the time snow approaches, PHL will have all of its equipment on standby and staff on location waiting for the precipitation to begin. When the snow starts to fall, PHL Operations monitors the pavement surface with hockey puck-sized sensors that are placed throughout the airfield to monitor pavement temperature. Even when it starts to snow, it usually takes a little while for the pavement to cool down to the point where it's at freezing and snow will start to stick. Crews will wait until there's enough accumulation to bring out equipment out and start removing snow. Whether the snow is wet or dry will determine the beginning of the process, as there typically needs to be around 1/4" of wet snow or about 1" of dry snow. Once it’s determined that there’s enough accumulation to start or that a strong band is approaching, the crews begin snowplowing. “We'll do this in coordination with the FAA. We'll speak with them and find out what they want to do. Often, we like to start with the closest runway; thus, we'll probably try to coordinate the closure of Runway 9L/27R first,” says Compliance Training Superintendent John Glass. “Even before that, we will close Runways 8/26 and 17/35 because they're normally not used during the storm. We keep our two long primary runways open and close secondary runways as it's not necessary to have them all open during a storm.”  

If wet snow is predicted, PHL Operations may need to pretreat the airfield with a solution that is similar to aircraft deicing liquid, but slightly modified for pavement. This is used for either preventing snow from forming or preventing melting snow from bonding to the runway. This procedure is done only if wet snow is forecast. Whether the snow is wet or dry will also determine when the runways must be closed for plowing and snow treatment. According to FAA regulations, there can be no more than two inches of dry snow and no more than half an inch of wet snow on the runway; after that, it must be legally closed. PHL teams always try to stay ahead of it and don't let it build up. However, there must also be enough snow on the pavement to broom or plow. 

“When snow begins to fall, we begin continuous monitoring, which entails driving the airfield constantly and keeping an eye on pilot reports to determine whether snow is accumulating and whether we need to close or restrict taxiways. We monitor everything that's out on the airfield and report that information to the tenants and users of the airport. Once we have enough snow to start taking action, we'll remove the crews from the south apron, close Runways 8/26 and 17/35, and then operate back and forth on the two main runways,” said DuBois. PHL teams are usually moving north to south during those storms, depending on the wind. To maximize the amount of snow removed from the runway and to push it in a direction that doesn't interfere with aircraft operations, crews begin on the north side of the runway and work their way south. They accomplish this in a few different formations. After that, they essentially alternate between the two primary runways throughout the storm. “We aim to cover a certain number of taxiways every time, and if snowfall causes us to lag behind, we will lower our priorities in order to keep enough pavement open for airplanes to get to and from the terminal.” 

And what happens afterward?  

Every time the crews touch a runway surface and conduct snow removal, the information has to be gathered and reported to the users through a NOTICE TO AIRMISSION. “While our ability to remove snow is commendable, the FAA's reporting system is arguably the most important,” said DuBois.  

Once the storm has passed, a runway's condition needs to be assessed. Following the conclusion of the snow removal process, the duty officer will check the runway and conduct friction tests as needed. The Operations team then enters the required data into an online FAA system known as NOTAM Manager and the website will generate the runway condition codes. The runway condition codes range from zero, which indicates no breaking action and unsafe, to six, indicating that the runway is mainly dry. Once the runway condition is determined, it will be posted on the FAA website via a field condition NOTAM so that the FAA, stakeholders, and pilots can see what to expect from the runway surface. Pilots have been trained to understand what that information means for their aircraft. 

The snow season in the Philadelphia area is from October to April with a seasonal average of 22 inches of snow. During the 2021-2022 snow season, PHL experienced seven snow days with 12.9 inches of snow. During the 2022-2023 season, PHL received 0.3 inches of snow. Whether it is 0.3” or 22”, PHL airport is always prepared and ready to fight "Snowmageddon". 


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