Reno's Whiteout: 81 Inches, 12 Days

April 14, 2005
Its location just over the mountain from the ski resorts of Lake Tahoe would lead one to believe that the operations personnel at Reno/Tahoe International Airport are quite used to heavy snow events.

RENO - Its location just over the mountain from the ski resorts of Lake Tahoe would lead one to believe that the operations personnel at Reno/Tahoe International Airport are quite used to heavy snow events. In fact, say officials here, the average snowfall is more like 2-4 inches. Thus, the nearly seven feet of white delight that fell over a 12-day period in January, beginning New Year's weekend, presented an unprecedented challenge. Here's a look at how the airport responded in such a way that they estimate the facility was actually closed to traffic a mere 14 hours total during the event.

"We were faced with the largest snowstorm in nearly 100 years and our entire airport team worked together to keep our airport operating while offering the highest level of service possible in the face of incredible winter conditions," comments Krys Bart, executive director.

Adds Brian Kulpin, public affairs manager, "The meterologists said this was the biggest snow event since 1906. Well, the airport didn't open until 1928."

Of the six of ten airlines reporting as of presstime, some 160 flights were cancelled during the event, another 275 delayed.

In addition, the impact on airport finances was significant because of unanticipated costs related to overtime and contractor costs, etc. Explains David Pittman, director of facilities and maintenance for Reno/Tahoe International, "We spent close to a half million dollars just trying to keep everything operational. What we had set aside in the budget for contracted services and the like was a mere $30,000. We went through that in a couple of hours." The breakout of unexpected costs, according to Kulpin, includes:

  • $260,814 for contracted services for snow removal;

  • $170,000 for deicing chemicals and vehicle/equipment fuel;

  • $139,487 in overtime pay; and

  • $4,052 for employee meals.

Airport officials say they will be applying for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has indicated it could provide as much as 75 percent reimbursement for the extra expenditures.

Taking on nature through coordination

The snow began to fall on Reno as the New Year's weekend was approaching - already the second busiest time of year for Reno/Tahoe International, according to Kulpin. He estimates that some 11,000 passengers per day use the airport, particularly when the region is experiencing a strong ski season, which it already was.

The snow quickly shut most of the city down, says Kulpin, making the ability to get workers to and from the airport a pending obstacle to keeping the airport open. Seven volunteer drivers were made available in four-wheel drive vehicles to any employee who could not get to the airport, he explains. In addition, two nearby hotel rooms were reserved for employees who could not get home. [One woman, they say, stayed for six nights due to the fact her house is located on what was an inaccessible mountainside. She was at work everyday.]

Officials say that the airport had to actually close for two hours the first weekend of the white onslaught, and another 12 hours the following weekend. Most of the downtime, they say, was to clean off around airfield lighting and signage, which must be done by hand.

Pittman explains that the ongoing operations plan breaks out the staff into airside and landside teams:

  • Airside has A and B teams of ten persons each and a crew leader, who is responsible for coordinating snow removal activities and equipment with operations personnel;

  • Landside has A and B teams of 13 persons each.

Comments Pittman, "Basically we try to get as much snow off the runways as we can before we have to resolve to putting chemicals down.

"One of the things that helps us is the operations department has a SCAN system - surface condition analyzing network - which has sensors throughout our pavement system. They're constantly taking temperature readings, surface conditions. It helps to formulate a plan."

According to Michael Moran, airside operations/communications manager, all maintenance and operations personnel undergo remedial training each year on all equipment. Each knows how to operate each piece of equipment, and how to maintain it, he says.

"I relate it to a symphony or an orchestra," say Moran, "the way these guys get out there and work this equipment. Operations sets up a plan, when they want things done, and the crews get out there."

In light of the event facing the airport, says Kulpin, the plan needed daily updating and officials made it a point to have communications meetings during breaks between storms. "We created a snow emergency committee that worked to continually update the plan," says Kulpin. That communication included staff, vendors, airlines, FAA, and the media.

Explains, Kulpin, "We probably did at least 150 interviews in that timeframe. We kept communications open to let the people know the airport was open. We had to fight the impression that the airport was closed.

"We took the three network affiliates on ride-alongs, out with the snow teams in the middle of the storm. They helped to keep people aware that the airport was open, especially when the city was at a standstill."

AOA Show on Tap

Cygnus Business Media is launching the Airfield Operations Area (AOA) Conference & Exhibition at the Four Points Sheraton in Milwaukee, April 17-19. The event is focused on providing a comprehensive look at all disciplines of airfield operations, with the target audience airport maintenance and operations managers.

The expo will feature indoor/outdoor exhibits and conferences and panel discussions focusing on the challenges, trends, and issues that affect airfield operations such as snow removal, runway maintenance, lighting, and friction testing. For information: