- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

The fleet of odd-looking yellow machines lumbered up and down the runways of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport yesterday in a battle to clear away endless acres of snow so that planes could fly.
About 40 heavy machines and 20 light trucks spread tons of snow around, scraping it up, brushing it aside or sucking it up and blowing it away in towering clouds of white. Meanwhile, ground crews in cherry pickers doused planes with showers of pinkish de-icing fluid.
By early afternoon, it was clear they were fighting a losing battle as the massive winter storm known as a nor'easter dumped wave after wave of snow on Washington, D.C. From the middle of the main runway, the abutting Potomac River was invisible, hidden in a void of white. The yellow machines looked like they could have been alien spaceships on a forbidden planet.
"We were aware early in the evening [Monday] that it was going to snow, but this storm has been pretty fickle so it's been a challenge to track its path," said James E. Bennett, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
When bad weather strikes, Mr. Bennett is one of about a dozen local airport and airline officials who decide when to plow, when to fly or when to just go home and try again tomorrow.
Airport operations officials, convening in a command center in the underbelly of the old main terminal, determined their crew of 110 workers could not keep the runways clear. Air-traffic controllers said visibility was poor. So, like most airports along the East Coast, airline officials canceled all flights in and out of Reagan National.
By 1:30 p.m. Arlington, Va.-based US Airways, which has the most flights through Reagan National, canceled all of its flights from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Boston. The other airlines followed suit.
Most flights through Washington Dulles International Airport also were canceled, though officials allowed just a few incoming international planes to land. Officials at Baltimore-Washington International Airport shut down runways at 4 p.m. after allowing a small number of outbound flights early in the afternoon.
Yesterday's storm, which dumped up to 2 feet of snow from the Carolinas to Maine, caught many by surprise. Though such large storms often catch Washington flat-footed, Mr. Bennett said his team is always prepared with a fleet of machines and an army of airport workers ready to take on snow.
"When we put out the alert, everyone knows their responsibilities, so it works like a machine," he said.
Mr. Bennett, who manages operations for both Reagan National and Dulles International Airport, got a call late Monday evening from the lone staffer manning the 24-hour operations command center saying the winter storm scheduled to hit Washington later in the week was making an early appearance.
Mr. Bennett immediately patched into a conference call with top officials from airport operations, air-traffic control, the major airlines and union representatives. They shared the latest information on the storm and assessed the status and availability of ground crews and equipment. The airlines determined the locations of pilots, crew and planes.
"We have several versions of snow emergency plans, and we immediately jumped to the most rigorous version," said Christopher U. Browne, vice president and airport manager for the Airports Authority.
"Plan A," as it is called, demands all available equipment and crew. The equipment is owned exclusively by the airport and sits idle for most of the year. The crew is made up of full-time airport trades workers including electricians, plumbers and carpenters who pull double duty as snow movers.
The plan requires the overnight operations crew to stay at work while the day shift comes in. Mr. Browne said no one will leave until the runways are completely clear of snow and ice, but he knew that some will need rest and food.
"This size snow-removal operation is like a marathon; we have to pace the crew," Mr. Browne said. The overnight crew paused around dawn for breakfast yesterday followed by a "forced rest" in the operations bunk room. The entire crew mustered once again for another round by 10 a.m.
Unlike street snow removers, airport crews cannot just make one pass, sweeping snow and dumping salt. The heavy salt used on roads is heavily corrosive and can damage expensive aircraft. Instead of salt, airport ground crews try to clear the gates, roads and runways primarily with machines, followed if necessary by an expensive ammonia-based de-icing liquid.
Lining up in convoys, the machines attack the snow in waves, first the massive scraper truck pushes aside the bulk of the snow. Another truck follows with a giant metal brush that chews away the ice. Then another machine sort of a cross between a truck, a vacuum cleaner and a manual lawn mower sucks up what's left and spits it off to the side from a vent.
In big snows like the one yesterday, the crews will repeat this procedure several times as they cover hundreds of miles of pavement. Airport officials say if you placed all the runways from Dulles and Reagan National into one lane, the road would run all the way to Chicago.
It seemed a valiant effort, and Mr. Browne said the crew would continue its work into the night, hoping for a break in the weather. But this storm would let no planes anywhere near Reagan National, which seemed like a ghost town yesterday.
One of the few exceptions was Scott Justice, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, who conveniently lives and works in nearby Crystal City. Col. Justice had come to the airport hoping the storm would clear in time for his 2:50 p.m. TWA flight to Portland, Ore., to visit his mother.
"By the time I got here they told me the flight was canceled, so I just made reservations for tomorrow morning," said Col. Justice, who was enjoying a bowl of soup in the airport terminal, resigned that the weather had won for the day.

Staff writer Donna De Marco contributed to this report.

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