Paul Brean: How Boston battles blizzards

March 4, 2015

In late January, the state of Massachusetts made history with a blizzard that fell just shy of being one of the top five snowstorms to ever hit the state. In one days time, this nor’easter dumped nearly 30 inches of snow on Boston Logan International Airport.

In blustery conditions that included zero visibility and gusts of wind up to 35 mph, Paul Brean’s crew went to work. As the manager of Airside/Landside/Fleet Maintenance at Massachusetts Port Authority, Logan Airport, Brean’s tasked with keeping runways clear and safe during every snow emergency.

Though airlines did cancel approximately 1,000 flights during the storm, just a day after the blizzard ended it was business as usual at this New England airport, which serves up to 33 million passengers a year--a tribute to the efforts of Brean’s award-winning snow removal team. The Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives (NEC/AAAE) awarded Boston Logan International Airport the Balchen/Post Award for Outstanding Achievement in Airport Snow and Ice Control in 2013, marking the fourth time in nine years that Logan was recognized for having the nation’s best snow and ice control program at a large commercial airport.

Airport Business recently caught up with Brean for a post-storm briefing and some insight into what makes this airport’s snow removal program among the best of the best.

What are the challenges Boston Logan International Airport faces when it snows?

Boston Logan has five runways and the airport encompasses approximately 2,400 acres of land. One of the major concerns for snow removal is that we have a lot of intersecting runways, which a lot of our counterparts throughout the world, don't have. We have to figure that into our game plan, and it can be fairly challenging because wind forecasts may require us to plow a section of a runway that isn’t even going to be used during the storm. The Denver’s of the world and the Chicago’s of the world have long perpendicular runways that they can plow in a straight path. We don't have that luxury. We have to keep every intersection open as we plow.

How do you prepare for a significant snow event?

At Logan, we have an 8:30 a.m. security briefing, which all airport stakeholders attend. Often there is a winter forecast--even 2 or 3 days ahead of time—which we roll out at the end of these briefings. After that meeting we'll have a snow briefing where we review a detailed weather report and ask the airlines what they have for flights. We ask them what corporate says they will do if the blizzard comes to fruition. Will they send aircraft to Boston? Will they put them somewhere else? Will they have overnight aircraft staged? Massport units will also brief amongst themselves and start mobilizing their responsibilities. For instance, I oversee the airfield maintenance piece. So, I'll prepare my equipment, and make sure liquid deicing tanks and diesel fuel tanks are topped off.

How do you prioritize what you're going do first?

Obviously we want to land aircraft, but we need more than just a runway. We want to be able to feed and get aircraft off the runway, and we have to schedule snow removal according to the wind configuration. So we first determine what runway we're going to try to keep open then we add in any major taxiway that's affiliated with that runway. We treat our ramps and apron areas as a high priority as well because we want to be able to get an aircraft on the ground, safely into a gate, and then disembark the passengers.

With the record-breaking blizzard you had in January, what runway did you keep open?

This storm was a nor’easter, where the winds came from the Northeast, with significant precipitation. Those conditions automatically put us in runway 15L/33R operation. Our goal was to keep 15L/33R open the entire length of the runway throughout the duration of the storm. We also kept our Lima taxiway cleared. As we readied ourselves, we also mobilized the contractor that cares for the ramp and apron areas around the jet bridges.

How do you deal with equipment and operator fatigue during a blizzard like the one you just had?

We pay close attention to human factors at Logan. I'm fortunate that my staff is able to attend the NEC/AAAE International Aviation Snow Symposium. Through past practices and our participation in the Snow Symposium, we've been able to develop excellent human factor programs. When we get an ‘all call’ (where all Massport employees are to report to work) we put these strategies into play. If we have a major storm (more than 6 inches of snow) predicted, we go into what we call A-B team operation. We have 85 people involved in airfield snow plowing. In A-B team operation, we start resting half of those employees for six hours. The other half starts work, whether it’s anti-icing or snow removal. We then set up a schedule based on the length of the storm and the conditions we're going to see. This operational method allows us to continuously have manpower in the field, while the other half of the team is resting or being fed. We've discovered that by doing things this way, we retain employees longer throughout the event, increase safety, and have less damage to the equipment.

It could be said that your snow removal operation goes year-round. How do you ready your equipment winter ops?

We have a preventive maintenance program that goes all year. Massport maintenance owns approximately 60 pieces of equipment. We start the preventive maintenance process in March for the upcoming winter. We have a dedicated fleet crew just for heavy equipment. Throughout the year, this crew breaks these machines down; we call it post-storming. For instance, a Vammas 5500 receives 200 hours of preventive maintenance in the off-season. Internally our goal is to have everything snow ready by October 15th. In October, we coordinate with the Boston control tower and do a simulated snow removal operation with all of our equipment.

How do you ready employees for the season ahead?

We also run an annual winter operations training program that everyone is expected to attend. In this four-hour class, we discuss radio communication and things like what a hold sign on a runway is, what to do in an emergency, how to get in touch with the control tower, and any changes the FAA has planned for the runways. We also have our factory representatives bring training officers in to work with our employees throughout the year. We even have our de-icing product companies come in and explain the best practices such as when to use the chemicals, when to use liquid versus solid chemicals and more.

Are there certain pieces of equipment you absolutely cannot live without?

I witnessed the transition from conventional equipment to multi-function equipment at Logan. What the multi-function Vammas has brought to Logan Airport is just amazing, as far as being able to keep a runway broom swept. It has reduced the time significantly. In a blizzard where we get 25 inches of snow, when I first started at Massport in the mid-90s, we wouldn't see runways for up to a week before they were uncovered. Now about eight to 10 hours after the snow stops we're able to get runways open and active. That's in a blizzard! In a smaller event, we're never closed. We're able to keep runways open and operational throughout the event, with snow rates of up to 2 to 3 inches an hour.

What inspection process is in place to keep safety top of mind during an event?

In our snow plan we dedicate a facilities representative and an operations representative to ride in the same vehicle. These individuals inspect the airfield. Because they are in the same vehicle, they can immediately put together a game plan to address any deficiencies they see. We also use a Saab friction tester by Tradewinds Scientific to get the Mu readings on the friction of the runway. That tells us what kind of shape we're in.

What do you do to coordinate the efforts with air traffic control?

We look at that relationship year-round as well. We do a site tour in the spring where the operations shift managers and field maintenance supervisors spend time with the people directing flights. During the readiness drill, we invite FAA air traffic controllers to ride along in the equipment to help them understand our approach.

Doing these things, helps us understand what they're up against if we close a runway on them or need to get on a runway when they have 15 inbounds. It also helps them understand what we're up against if we have a machine that breaks down on a runway. Or if we have to escort 15 machines across an active runway.

What technology has completely changed your world for the better?

In the blizzard we just had, we were at zero visibility at one point. We had drifts up to 4 feet, and we were trying to find our Charlie taxiway that leads out to runway 15R. That was a priority because that taxiway was our main artery to 15R. We had plow operators and supervisors with 40 years experience at the airport, a handful of shift managers and myself who know the airfield like the back of our hands, and we could not find Charlie taxiway visually. We used our GPS software program to find it. We were able to target Charlie by looking at an iPad. We knew exactly where Charlie taxiway was and how we could open it up. The technology is amazing. Prior to that, we would try to plow a little bit here and see if we were there. And what would happen is the equipment would get stuck because we were not near the taxiway and on a grass island instead. The Web-based software for mobile applications is truly amazing. You literally have a communications center in your lead vehicles.

As the operator of an award-winning snow removal program, what in your opinion sets one program apart from another in terms of it's ability to successfully keep an airport in operation during a snow storm?

I think the most critical thing is communication. We do a great job of communicating with the airlines, communicating with the FAA, and communicating within Massport's own departments. Second, a successful program recognizes the human factor. We have dedicated bunkrooms and schedules for meals. We do an A-B team set up, which allows people to rest during a long event. We're able to sustain a large work group through a storm, because we think of the human factor. We buy machines with ergonomics designed into them, noise-reducing cabs, anti-vibration seats and static-free communications systems. These machines are easy to use, joystick driven, multi-function pieces that are easy on the operator. Massport has made a large investment in equipment, and it really pays dividends when you have to keep these machines running for a long time.