There have been instances where we've closed for an hour or two, but that ice thing shut us down for three hours and that's very rare. It was a freak thing. —Dave Korzep
SALT LAKE CITY — Lately, workers dealing with all the snow at the Salt Lake City International Airport will take any break they can get.
The weather forced them to make the rare decision to shut all runways down last week and then to intermittently close runways on Sunday. And while the snow was back in force Wednesday, it came after a good Tuesday.
"Davis County is getting pounded (with snow) right now, Utah County is getting pounded right now, and we've got a skiff," Dave Korzep, superintendent of airport operations, said Tuesday morning, looking out at the runways and gates.
It was a welcome light day after a record snow day Sunday and freezing rain last Thursday the likes of which Korzep had never seen in Utah. There is a snow and ice plan in place at the airport and rarely is it necessary to close it all down. But the freezing rain was something else.
"The ice day was the first time I can recall closing," said Korzep, who has been at the airport 23 years. "There have been instances where we've closed for an hour or two, but that ice thing shut us down for three hours and that's very rare. It was a freak thing."
There are 150 pieces of equipment used for snow removal at the airport, but the numerous plows are useless on ice. Instead, airport crews rely on a large truck with a large tank that distributes the potassium acetate they use to help with traction.
"We would rather plow 18 inches of snow than an inch of ice, because you can't plow ice," Korzep explained. "The only thing you can do with it is treat it with potassium acetate, which is a special chemical for airports, because you can't use salt on a runway. If you use salt, airlines get mad at you because you rust their planes. … This is the airport's version of snow melt that's aircraft-friendly."
Snow, though, they can handle. There are two crews that enroll in a snow school in the fall to review how to use the equipment and implement the airport's snow and ice response plans.
There are also the large, climate-controlled "barns" where equipment is stored, full of gasoline and ready to go in event of a storm.
"So, when it does start getting bad, all the operator has to do is hop in and go," Korzep said. "It's a choreographed sort of ballet, if you will, of the lead plow, second plow, third plow and on down and it's choreographed where we can clear a runway, depending on the conditions, in a half-hour."
The three runways at the airport total close to 34,000 feet, and in order to keep the airport open, crews often plow them on a rotation to keep at least one open at all times. This is how the airport managed winter storm Gandalf that hit Jan. 10.
"There were intermittent runway closures, and that's how we do it," Korzep said. "It's like a shell game: close one, plow it, open it. Go to the next one, close it, plow it, open it, and in the duration of the storm, you may do that four, five, six times."
Safety remains the top priority and is the guide for any decisions made at the airport, he said. Though the Federal Aviation Administration offers guidelines for weather events, Korzep said airport officials also rely on pilot reports.
"If you get a braking action that's fair or poor, or worst case, a braking action that's nil — if you get a nil, you automatically have to close the airport," he said. "The airport superintendent automatically has to close the airport, so it's based on pilot reports and we have a very experienced crew. We have people who have been out here 20 years. They know what's going on. They have a situational awareness."
It's been an above-average snow year already. Between October and April, an average of 61 inches of snow falls at the airport. As of Tuesday, almost 50 inches had been recorded.
Korzep said his crews work with the National Weather Service to know what's coming next. Between that communication and the available Doppler technology, they can almost pinpoint when any weather will hit.
Technology has also been a huge help with managing passengers in weather situations. After the closure due to the freezing rain was compounded with hotels full from the Outdoor Retailer convention, Sundance and other events, Korzep said airport officials planned for as many as 600 to 800 passengers spending the night at the "airport hotel."
Ultimately, only about 100 stayed the night, and they had inflatable cots and pillows, as needed. In case of future weather events, Korzep advised passengers to take advantage of the online resources offered by airlines.
"Check with your airline before you leave your house," he said. "There's so many resources online now. Airlines have figured out that it's not good to have a whole concourse full of people waiting when we're doing snow removal ops or there is a fog event or ice. The airlines are catching on with technology, so just hang at your hotel or at your home a little while until it's safe."