John Kinney: Keeping Aspen’s runways safe |

John Kinney: Keeping Aspen’s runways safe

John Kinney
Guest Commentary

I am proud to announce that for the second year in a row the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has won the prestigious American Association of Airport Executives Balchen Post Award. The American Association of Airport Executives is the leading airport trade organization in the country representing 851 airports nationwide. The award is presented to “airport snow-and-ice control teams who have demonstrated determination for excellence in their efforts to keep their airports open and safe.”

This year’s recognition comes after a challenging winter with lots of snow, and I’d like to take the opportunity to explain to our community just what it takes to keep our airport open when it snows.

Snow removal at an airport is unique, complex and technical and all about the coefficient of friction — bottom line. Simply said, it’s where the rubber hits the runway. Airport crews must clear the runway surfaces to maximize the coefficient of friction, which is the level of friction between the airplane’s tire as it strikes the runway surface upon landing. This can be in excess of a 150 miles per hour. That’s why you see smoke from the tires upon landing by an aircraft that must slow from zero to 150 mph instantaneously. Contamination from snow and ice reduces this critical level of friction. We use computerized measuring systems to determine the level of friction of the runway using a specialized $100,000 piece of equipment. If the friction is too low, we can plow again, using huge 22-foot-wide specialized brooms, or lay down chemicals. We don’t use mag chloride because it is corrosive to aircraft wiring and brakes. We sometimes use specialized sand that has been washed and screened so that it won’t damage aircraft engines if the sand is ingested.

While we’re working to keep the runway clear of snow and ice, we issue alerts to aircraft in real time (Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMS). NOTAMS are sent out as conditions change with additional snowfall or if temperatures rise or fall both in the air and on the pavement. We measure pavement temperature using sensors along the length of the runway. The electronic paperwork alone can be a crushing amount of work for staff but it will be used as the record of decision if an aircraft has an issue while landing, taking off, taxiing or parking. Several hundred NOTAMS can be issued in a snowstorm.

A lot of judgment is used in determining a “go” or “no go” decision to allow aircraft operations. These decisions rest exclusively with the airport personnel leading each winter operations event, not with the control tower or the pilot. This is one of the greatest if not the largest risk-management issues for the county during each and every snow event.

While most in town are celebrating a powder day, unfortunately skiing is the furthest thing from airport personnel’s mind. They arrive to work shortly after midnight and face a 14- to 16-hour day either driving heavy equipment or coordinating with the individual airlines about anticipated arrival and departure times, and the potential for delayed, diverted or canceled flights. Many times throughout the winter these storms can last for days, keeping the airport staff very busy.

These irregular operations can be very trying on our airport guests and passengers so we try to stay ahead of the impacts the best we can through real-time communication. We offer options and/or logistical support to travelers on their way as soon as possible. Every decision we make is made in the context of safety first.

There are no exceptions regardless of the level of disruption this may have on flight operations. I hope the community will join me in congratulating TEAM ASE on another national award-winning year!

John Kinney is director of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.