ATL’s handling of snow is a testament to planning and dedication
Between the opening of Hartsfield-Jackson’s “Snow Desk” at 12:45 p.m. last Tuesday and its final report at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, the DOA’s Operations, Maintenance and Transportation Division kept all five runways clear of ice; ensured that roadways and bridges were navigable; made sure the Airport’s shuttles and trains were running; and even handed out hundreds of blankets and toiletry kits to passengers who found themselves stranded by a snow and ice storm that had brought much of the metro area to a standstill.
The story of how the Atlanta Airport successfully managed to weather last week’s devastating storm is one of routine preparation and coordination, followed with by-the-book execution. But all the planning and training would’ve been to little effect, says Director of Operations Kim Wade, if employees hadn’t stepped up to the challenge – in some cases, working on the airfield in freezing conditions for up to 8 hours without a bathroom break.
“Our ops people are extremely dedicated,” she says. “They thrive on that kind of situation.”
Last week’s snow event began at ATL the same way as all potential weather threats: with a conference call between airport officials, the airlines, concessionaires, the City, and even other airports that could be affected by flight cancellations. Early that Monday, January 27, the stakeholders compared notes and were briefed on their respective responsibilities.
“The conference call is key because it gets everyone prepared for what they’ll need to do,” explains Paul Meyer, Assistant General Manager for Operations, Maintenance and Transportation. “Eight times out of 10, nothing happens, or it just rains, but at least we’re prepared.”
From that time on, the Airport continuously monitors the storm, checking for National Weather Service updates; communicating with airline meteorologists; and even using proprietary websites to instantly access traffic cameras in other states to track how fast the storm is approaching.
On Monday, ops and maintenance crews were placed on 12-hour shifts and told they should expect to sleep at the Airport if the storm was severe. The airplane de-icing pads on the east side of Concourse E were cleared. Sand and salt were laid down on access roads and overpasses. Temperature sensors buried in the ground along the runways were checked so workers would know whether snow was likely to stick or melt. And the airlines began cancelling flights in advance so travelers coming from other cities wouldn’t find themselves trapped in Atlanta.
When it became apparent mid-morning Tuesday that the first snowflakes were only an hour away, airport workers treated the runways with de-icing compounds to prevent ice from sticking. As flurries began, the Snow Desk went live in the Concourse E control tower. Acting as an all-purpose command center, the desk was responsible for monitoring runway conditions, coordinating de-icing activities and issuing frequent email updates with information about the security checkpoints, parking lots, ground transportation and other aspects of airport operations.
Over the next two days, two rotating shifts of ops and maintenance workers kept the Airport running. At least 20 employees spent the night on cots and some, Wade included, stayed onsite until the event was formally over on Thursday. With non-stop work to do, most team members had to have their dinners brought out to the airfield. Only one worker was unable to make it in at all – because he was trapped in his car for 19 hours on the Downtown Connector, Wade says. Employees will receive comp time for their snow duty.
Throughout the entire event, no flights were delayed because of runway conditions, and airport personnel cleared the Loop Road – technically a Hapeville city street – in order to keep shuttles running between the terminals. On Tuesday night, ops workers handed out 750 blankets to passengers stranded in the domestic atrium and more than 180 toiletry kits.
“We’ll never get great at handling these snow events because we don’t get enough of them,” says Wade, a 25-year veteran of Hartsfield-Jackson. “But last week went about as well as we could’ve hoped.”