Winter is coming!
Winter, for most people, means snowy days, frigid temperatures, and having to clear off your car in pajamas. Airports view winter as a time for around-the-clock preparedness for snowstorms that culminates in a logistical dance to clear runways of snow and ice while trying to minimize the number of delays and cancellations. Airport snow removal requires the usage of several pieces of Snow Removal Equipment (SRE), such as plows, sweepers, and blowers. Using these vehicles and deicing chemicals can have a significant impact on the local environment, such as decreasing local air quality and contaminating water. Innovations from around the world are aiming to minimize the environmental impact encountered during winter operations, while also reducing the closure of runways and taxiways.
If you have ever taken a flight during the winter, you have likely seen your plane get deiced. This process is done at either the gate or a designated deicing area on the airfield and involves a crew hosing down the plane with glycol, the primary chemical used to deice aircraft. On average, it takes approximately 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of glycol to deice a Boeing 747. Although airports have systems in place to catch glycol runoff, deicing fluids can still find their way into the water supply. Several major airports in the United States, including the John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF), have installed an infrared deicing system that helps the airport reduce the amount of glycol used at the airport. Infrared deicing works by aircraft taxiing into a special hangar that emits infrared heat to melt snow and ice on the aircraft. A light coating of glycol is still applied to the aircraft to prevent further ice development. After the infrared deicing system was installed at JFK in 2006, the airport experienced a 90% reduction in glycol usage. Not only does reducing glycol help the environment, but it also translates to cost savings for airlines.
Across the pond, some airports have been rolling out cutting-edge snow removal vehicles that run on renewable energy. Swedavia, an airport management company in Sweden, purchased its first biogas snow sweeper in 2014. The company had a goal for all 10 of their airports to be fossil-fuel-free by 2020. To help achieve this goal, Volvo stepped up to help develop the world’s first biogas snow sweeper for Swedavia. After several years of development, Volvo delivered eight biogas snow sweepers to Swedavia in 2014. Since then, all 10 airports operated by Swedavia have replaced their snow removal vehicles with Volvo’s biogas snow sweepers. These sweepers have led to a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions at the Stockholm Arlanda Airport (ARN), which is the largest airport operated by Swedavia. ARN uses a fleet of 10 plows and sweepers at a time to clear their runways during a snowstorm. On average, their fleet consumes approximately 100 gallons of fuel per hour, and switching to biogas has helped them cut emissions by 70%.
Paving the Way Forward
The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Partnership to Enhance General Aviation, Safety, Accessibility, and Sustainability (PEGASAS) program has teamed up with Iowa State University to develop pavement that does not require any treatment or plowing. A test slab of heated pavement was installed at the Des Moines International Airport (DSM) to examine the feasibility of this new type of pavement. The heated pavement uses a special mixture of pavement that is electrically conductive and can be turned on at a moment’s notice. The slabs of pavement at DSM can reach temperatures of up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and can melt 1 inch of snow within 30 minutes. Although this pavement test was limited to a section of pavement that was less than 200 square feet, the success of the project proved that heated pavement can be a viable option for airports. Installing heated pavement on a terminal apron at a busy airport would help alleviate traffic congestion. If this technology is used on runways and taxiways, airports and airlines would see a reduction in delays and cancellations since runways would not be closed for plowing. The environmental benefits would also be significant as airports could significantly reduce the amount of chemicals used to treat airfield pavement, as well as a reduction in fossil fuel being consumed by the snow removal equipment.
The aviation industry’s commitment to sustainable practices is evident in the development and implementation of technologies, such as infrared deicing systems and biogas-powered snow removal vehicles. While the new developments presented are aimed at making airports more eco-friendly, they have ancillary benefits such as reducing costs. Winter can be a challenging time for airports, but innovations like heated pavements can help reduce delays and cancellations. The FAA’s continued interest in funding these environmentally friendly opportunities shows that these innovations will soon become mainstream. If you are interested in learning more about these innovations or how your airport can become more eco-friendly, please reach out to us!