How does snow affect BAA airports?

Saturday 18, December 2010


How does snow affect BAA airports?


One of the most common questions BAA is asked by passengers and the media during periods of bad weather is how, in the 21st century – with millions of pounds invested in equipment – can airports close due to the snow?


An airport runway is not like a road – it requires much more attention and even in good weather it is inspected every day to ensure there is no debris that might be drawn into the engines of aircraft.


During the winter months, runways are obviously vulnerable to snow and ice – each of which can significantly reduce what is known as the runway’s tolerance.


Put simply, this is the degree to which a landing aircraft can stop without sliding, and a plane taking off needs a similar level of grip in order to generate the speed needed to get in to the air.


Planes are generally travelling at speeds of more than 100mph when they land or take off so you can understand why the runway needs to be completely safe as they do so.


To make it safe, BAA does several things. They follow detailed weather forecasts and deploy de-icing ‘rigs’ when it looks like ice is posing a risk to the runway and the airfield’s network of roads, known as taxiways.  It is important to note that grit used on roads cannot be applied to airport runways, because the grit can be sucked into engines, with potentially dangerous consequences.


However, the preparations prevent ice building on the runway and allow BAA to clear snow and slush more easily, rebuilding the runway’s tolerance.  The airlines carry out a similar task with their aircraft, de-icing them and preparing them for a safe flight.


When it comes to long periods of snowfall – and in recent weeks our Scottish airports have recorded unprecedented levels of snow – the real challenge is that there is very little anybody can do to keep a runway, which may be as long as four kilometres, completely clear when the snow doesn’t stop and continues to fall behind the snow ploughs.


Most people will feel the frustration during bad winter weather of clearing drives, roads and paths only to watch as the snow continues to fall – undoing hard work and rendering each of them unsafe in only a few moments.



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