Tens of thousands of tourists land on Finavia airports each winter with holiday plans. Plenty of Finns also fly to Northern and Eastern Finland for winter sports. With snow typically covering Northern Finland 170 to 200 days a year, and even Southern Finland nearly a third of the year, how do Finnish airports cope with the challenging combination of air traffic and winter weather?
The old Scout Motto “Be prepared” is just as relevant when it comes to winter maintenance. “Our maintenance and air traffic control staff together keep a constant eye on weather forecasts. When a flurry is in sight, extra staff is called in,” says Veli-Pekka Pitkänen, Finavia’s Northern Finland Director. A true Finavia veteran with 27 years in the company under his belt, Pitkänen has seen it all when it comes to heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures.
It takes an army
“In addition to people keeping an eye on the weather, all our runways are equipped with high tech sensors that monitor tiny changes in the tarmac temperature 24/7,” Pitkänen explains. “We are particularly interested in temperature changes around zero degrees Celsius, as this is the trickiest temperature from an air traffic safety point of view.”
When snow does begin to fall, it’s removed mechanically from the tarmac by an army of industrial scale snowploughs, sweepers, and snowblowers. It takes up to about 30 minutes to clear an entire runway. Often, this work is carried out when there is a break in arrivals and departures, but if there is a blizzard and safety demands it, traffic can be stopped while the runway is attended to.
Contrary to what you might think, it’s not the amount of snow itself that airport maintenance struggles with, but temperature. When the weather is close to freezing but there isn’t much snow, the runway is in danger of freezing over. Early winter, from November to the beginning of December, tend to be the trickiest time in this respect. Information on tarmac friction is fed directly to traffic control, who, together with the pilot, decide whether it’s safe to land. “This is where we use various chemicals to melt the tarmac ice,” Pitkänen says.
Second to none
“On a global scale, Finnish SnowHow truly is second to none. Even though other countries with hard winters, like Canada and the United States, have much longer traditions in air traffic than Finland does, we regularly host industry experts keen to learn winter maintenance skills from us,” Pitkänen tells with pride.
Thanks to great SnowHow, fewer flights are delayed or cancelled, which leads to fewer disrupted travel plans but also has economic repercussions. Finavia are also industry leaders in improving SnowHow skills. “Weather sensors and forecasts become more sensitive by the year, which leads to better timed winter maintenance,” Pitkänen concludes.