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Snowstorms and airports, planning and plowing

By Chloe Sommers, CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Plows jumped into action at Washington's Dulles airport for surprise March storm
  • Airports plan way ahead for dealing with snow; Dulles runs drills in the fall
  • Clearing runways efficiently crucial for ability of airlines to restart flights
  • Storms within a week test airports in DC, Boston, Chicago and Denver

Washington (CNN) -- Christopher Browne gets ready for snow long before any falls in Washington, which hasn't seen a stormy winter for a few years now.

It's a crucial part of his job as manager of Dulles International Airport, one of the busiest jumping off points for international flights and a hub for those traveling to and from the nation's capital for official business.

Delays, especially those due to turbulent weather, cost airlines money and passengers lost time and productivity. That puts pressure on airport personnel and heightens the need to plan far ahead for turbulent weather.

"If you were here earlier in the fall, you would see equipment running around and operating and acting as if there was 12 inches of snow on the runway," Browne said.

"It's better to set the expectation early, make the call and then with high assurance know that when you get back to an operation status that you will be able to meet all the demands," he said.

Snows delay flights

His crews jumped into action for a surprise early March storm that moved from the Midwest into parts of Northern Virginia and Maryland.

As heavy snow blanketed parts of the area, the Dulles plows moved swiftly up and down the long runways that handle jumbo jets and other big planes that need a lot of real estate to take off and land.

Airports like Dulles keep more than 50 pieces of snow equipment handy for extreme winter weather. Their small army of plows are constantly in motion during a storm, sweeping away snow and keeping accumulation at a manageable level.

Runways and other busy parts of the tarmac get priority. Gate areas themselves are generally the responsibility of the airlines.

Dana Pitts, the Dulles operations manager, said certain areas sometimes can go without constant plowing.

"We can have two or three inches of snow buildup here and still have safe taxiway. As long as we don't have any physical obstructions, like a hill of snow for them to taxi through, this can sort of be left until a convenient time." Pitts said.

On either side of the Washington storm, airport operations in Denver, Chicago and Boston took care of business as snowy weather blasted those cities.

Typically, airports remain open in snowstorms. It's up to airlines to decide the status of flights.

Carriers lose millions of dollars every year to winter storms that affect their operations.

Recent federal regulations penalizing them for long ground delays and stricter attention to costs of managing their fleets now prompt carriers to cancel flights ahead of big storms.

"Seventy-two hours out we start really closely watching storms and how they will impact us," said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for United Airlines.

"We really do everything we can to cancel everything we have to cancel 24 hours out, giving people a chance to make a decision about their travel plans before they get to the airport," she said.

For instance, United canceled more than 250 flights ahead of a storm that was expected to hit Denver on Saturday. Southwest Airlines pulled back another 125.

McCarthy says that in the event of a snowstorm like the one that gave Browne's plows a workout, United will try to move as many planes as possible out of the area ahead of time so they are not sitting in the snow.

This puts a premium on clearing runways efficiently. The faster that work is completed, the faster airlines can get back to flying once the skies clear.

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