Helsinki Airport – a winter wonderland

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While other parts of Europe might be gripped by annual snow-fever, Helsinki Airport is the picture of calm when it comes to dealing with the extremes of winter weather. If your flight to or from Finland is canceled for weather-related reasons, you can be fairly sure that the weather in question is not in Helsinki.

The Baltic Sea separates Finland from its European trading partners, a natural obstacle rendered even more of a challenge by ice cover that can last several months. Keeping the country’s main international airport open through blizzards and temperatures that drop below minus 20 centigrade is an economic necessity. Cargo imports and exports depend on it.

"The most significant risk factor for winter aviation is posed by airports which rarely experience true winter conditions," points out Jussi Ekman, an Airbus Captain who has been closely involved with developing Finnair’s "snow-how"."In recent years a number of key international airports have been caught off-guard by significant snowfall and been forced to close runways following minor snow cover. In the past decade, Helsinki Airport has closed for only 30 minutes because of the weather – and that was only because a blizzard coincided with a rare technical failure."

"A snowfall of 10cm may not sound like much, but for an airport the size of Helsinki-Vantaa, it equates to 7,000 lorry loads of snow," Ekman continues. "The snow is never cleared completely from the area, but is instead transferred from one area to another. In my opinion, both Finnair and Finavia, the airport operator, have managed this side of the operations impeccably. Finnair has a good fleet of de-icer vehicles and thanks to Finavia’s 120 strong staff and 50 specialist vehicles, the runways are closed for just 10 minutes out of every full hour, even in heavy snowstorms."

"Despite major technological advances, challenges remain during the winter season," says Ekman. "Jet engine compressor vanes must be checked carefully for ice prior to ignition. If ice has formed, it is removed using blowers. Snow, ice and frost have to be cleared from wings prior to take off. This is done using water and propylene glycol-based detergents. The glycol is used to prevent the water from freezing." Every measure is taken to ensure that any fresh snow does not adhere to the wings.

Team work

Finnair’s reputation and technical expertise in de-icing and winter flying are unequalled. But Finnair cannot achieve the required levels of safety and efficiency alone. Cooperation with Helsinki Airport is essential.

"We are often asked to explain how we manage the winter operations so well," says Heini Noronen-Juhola, Vice President, Aviation and Safety, the division of Helsinki Airport Operations that takes care of maintenance.  "It results from a combination of resources and equipment with efficient processes and cooperation between the different parties at the airport.  Resources and the ways you use them are one aspect of successful maintenance; regulations are another. But close and effective cooperation between different parties is the main thing."

"We follow ICAO regulations and national regulations, including those for maximum contamination on the runways," says Noronen-Juhola. "Much of what we do for airport maintenance is visible, but there is also a lot going on behind the scenes arranging runway inspections and guaranteeing the provision of information for the next maintenance session."

The fact that Helsinki Airport has three runways is another advantage. If an airport only has a single runway, no aircraft movements are possible while it is being maintained. Runway snow "contamination" limits also vary from country to country.

Full-time airport maintenance staff number about 80, including 18 office and supervisory staff, and an extra, seasonal workforce supplements these in severe winter conditions. Contractors take care of snow clearance, transport and de-icing. This seasonal flexibility is more cost-effective than a large year-round workforce – flexibility that might be prevented by regulation in some countries.  

Text by Tim Bird

Published January 28, 2013

Category: Environment, Local features

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