Winter never shuts down Anchorage airport

Snow won't shut this airport down
Snow won't shut this airport down

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Snow won't shut this airport down 01:44

(CNN)It snows a lot in Anchorage, Alaska, but the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport prides itself on something airports that see far less snow can't boast: It's never closed down by winter weather.

"It's a bragging right," says Zaramie Lindseth, airfield maintenance manager. "Anchorage is a top airport when it comes to snow and ice control."
On average, more than 6 feet of snow falls annually in Anchorage, a number roughly equivalent to the most snow ever recorded in a year in New York. Even the mildest of Anchorage winters, like this year and the 2013-2014 year, still sees more than 2 feet of snow.
    "In Anchorage, we just plan for it every day," he says. "For us, snow is not an emergency; it's just part of doing business."
    One year on St. Patrick's Day, the airport had 27 inches of snow fall in 24 hours. "Even through that event we were able to continue operations," Lindseth says. "It wasn't pretty. We did have some delays, certainly, but the airport continued to function and never closed all three runways during that event."
    Anchorage International Airport is the second busiest cargo airport in the United States and the fifth busiest in the world, according to the airport. This is largely because it's within 9.5 hours flying time of 90% of the industrialized world. More than 2 million people -- about 40,000 passenger flights -- also travel through the airport each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
    Managers say the 110 men and women who work in the airfield maintenance department are the key to keeping the 33 million square feet of airfield pavement clear from snow and ice.
    "I think it's just the greatest bunch of guys around, really, for doing what we do," says Brendon Knox, airfield maintenance foreman. "To be good at it, you need to be able to deal with talking to the tower, navigating the airfield and staying away from airplanes in the dark and in a snowstorm."

    'Throw the snow as far as you can'

    They also have some help from some high-tech equipment. All 80 pieces are painted yellow and kept clean and shiny in a huge building at the airport. Their pickup trucks have digital readouts that show conditions on the tarmac by using sensors built into the pavement. They also have dual-engined, million-dollar snowplows that push snow out of the way and then sweep the runway clean.
    Equipment operator Jeremy Hans says his favorite pieces of equipment are the massive snow blowers.
    "You just follow everybody, throw the snow as far as you can, eat as much as you can," he says.
    "We have three primary runways here all in excess of 10,000 feet long. We can get a runway cleaned in 18 to 22 minutes," Lindseth says. "Once that runway is done we move on to the next and keep that rotation going until the snowfall ceases."
    Snow removed from the runways is piled to the side, but in other areas such as the ramps and plane parking spots, it has to be trucked away and piled in what is called a "snow storage area."
    Often the mountains of snow don't melt until August.
    After the runway is cleared, sand and several chemical mixtures are spread onto the tarmac to keep it from icing over. The mixtures are specially formulated so they won't cause problems with the aircraft or any corrosion, which is what salt would do.
    Anchorage must plan ahead because the chemicals are brought in by barge from the continental United States. Getting a new shipment takes about a month.
    Lindseth is careful not to criticize other airports that are forced to close when snow piles up.
    "Certainly every airport has unique challenges," he says.
    Airport layouts, the number of passenger flights arriving at the same time, training and experience with snow are among the variables that impact whether an airport is able to stay open.
    For Anchorage, these principals have been a primary factor in everything from how the airport is built to what equipment is on hand.
    "There aren't too many other options in Alaska for aircraft of this size. So it's critical for us to be a viable option for carriers coming through," Lindseth says. "We cannot lose to a snow or ice event. We've got to be ready for it."