Best Practices in FBO Management: Snow Removal

April 13, 2017
Winter weather can be unpredictable, but proper preparations allow your FBO to ride out the storm.

Of the variety of precipitation known to fall from the clouds, there is only one that seems to have an equal number of supporters and detractors: snow. Predictably, most of the advocates fall in the category of school children hopeful for a snow day or skiers on a mountain seeking fresh powder. For those aviation businesses that deal with its sometimes crippling effects — airlines, airports and FBOs among them — there is no beauty to snow. Indeed, snow means different things to different FBOs. For those in the upper half of the country, it may mean customer delays, long days and a new or alternate set of rules for a given operation. For those operating FBOs in Florida for example, snow means a fresh crop of humorous videos of cars sliding down hills, courtesy of The Weather Channel, playing the lobby.

Regardless, as the snow begins to taper off across the country and spring approaches, it’s worth a review of how snow affects FBO operations and to review lessons learned. There is much for FBOs to consider before, during and after the wicked white stuff begins to fall.

Preparedness prior to the first flakes falling starts during the waning days of summer, when wise FBOs begin recurrent deicing training, and stock up on other essentials, such as deicing compounds for FBO sidewalks and parking lots, such as rock salt, calcium, magnesium or potassium chloride, or urea among others. Sand, or other non-corrosive compounds should be held in stock for ramp side use only.

Another pre-season suggestion is for FBOs to "[B]uild a good relationship with your airport’s maintenance department” says Ross Wheeler, business development manager for Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Maverick Air Center. In many cases, an airport maintenance division is tasked with not only clearing airport infrastructure of snow such as runways and taxiways, but tenant ramps such as airlines and FBOs. Yet, the priority for that snow removal team is exactly that, and FBOs are often the last asphalt on the airport to see the blade of the plow. While relationships may not alter the priority list, Wheeler notes it is no coincidence the plow truck from the airport just happens to show up in the nick of time for a medevac flight ready to depart from the FBO’s ramp. Those relationships, sowed in the summer, are reaped in the winter.

In terms of snow removal, FBOs are wise to own or lease a heavy duty pickup truck, Bobcat, or other vehicle in their GSE fleet that may be converted quickly to a plow truck with the addition of a blade. While responsibility for snow removal from an FBO’s ramp varies from airport to airport, snow removal from parking lots is often within the purview of the FBO. So too, is where that plowed snow is piled up for the winter. For places such as Sioux Falls, snow may fall anytime from October to April and for three of those months, the average high temperature doesn’t get above freezing. That means large piles of snow that don’t melt for a very, very long time. While FBOs obviously shouldn’t pile snow near the FBO customer entrance, piles of snow shouldn’t be very near the airport fence either- for security reasons. Yes, snow piles can get taller than airport fences, making the fence much easier to hop over.

Operationally, snow removal is just one aspect of an FBO’s winter operations plan. Ground services affected by snow such as aircraft towing sometimes requires a different approach. The human element must also be considered, including appropriate employee schedule planning and the personal toll inclement weather can take. On the subject of the former- aircraft towing- FBOs will often use chains on tow vehicle tires for additional grip in wintery conditions. Towbarless tractors, such as Lektros, while unmatched for hangar movements, quickly lose their efficacy on snow. Hence, when on open ramp conditions in snow, the old reliable of tug and towbar is the order of the day. However, these tugs have their limits as well, and whenever possible FBOs are wise to maneuver aircraft into position by pulling them with tug and towbar, as opposed to pushing. Notoriously tail-heavy business jets, such as the Cessna Citation X, Falcon 900 and 2000 series, as well as 20 and 30 series Learjet aircraft, are easily jackknifed when towed and extreme caution should apply pushing such aircraft on snow. One trick-of-the-trade for towing those 20 and 30 series Learjets on snow is employing the aid of the pilots to simply sit in the cockpit to add weight to the nose.

For employees, snow is one of the harshest weather conditions in which to operate. Like sand at a beach, snow by its nature is able to creep into boots, gloves and any exposed areas and add its own dimension of misery to the already bone-chilling cold. Proper winter weather gear, including parkas is essential. Face protection such as knit masks and ski googles, can also make a difference. And, like extreme heat, extreme cold takes a physical toll and saps energy. Even with proper gear, exposure should be interspersed with sufficient breaks indoors, if only to thaw out.

Finally, operational staffing plans should be considered in advance of a snow storm. For the upper Midwest, six inches of powder is just another day and perhaps no cause for concern. Yet, for areas unaccustomed -Seattle for instance — snow creates difficulty for employees making it to work on time, or at all. Snow staffing plans may include scheduling additional personnel in case some are unable to make it to work due to weather conditions. In more extreme cases where the forecast calls for something approaching snowmageddon, creating on airport accommodations for employees- either at nearby hotels or in sleep rooms at the FBO may be necessary.

Wheeler, who graduated from the University of North Dakota and resides in Sioux Falls, S.D., has experienced more harsh winters — and snow — than many care to imagine, let alone experience. Despite the cold though, his warm Midwestern charm comes through as he reflects on the long winters. Says Wheeler, “It makes you really appreciate the summers.”