Ready for winter

The Edmonton International Airport’s snow-clearing and ice removal policy

The Edmonton International Airport (EIA) is Canada’s fifth-largest airport serving more than eight-million passengers annually. Safety and security must always be the top priorities at an airport and that includes maintaining the terminal, runways, taxiways, and aprons in a safe condition. Our core business is to ensure that we maintain on-time, on-budget performance all year, which again necessitates an efficient winter operations crew. We know that we can have up to 200 days of snow annually, so we prepare accordingly, and we get a lot of practice.

EIA experiences an average daily January temperature of -11 C and a 10-year average snowfall of 128.5 centimetres. The airport has more than 1,500,00-square-metres airside (runway space, taxiways, aircraft handling aprons, etc.) and more than 860,000-square-metres groundside (roads and parking lots) to keep clear if it is to operate 24/7, 365 days a year. The heavy equipment that is used is also tested severely in these conditions and still must be maintained or repaired and kept operating. The Edmonton region just broke a 40-year cold record this season, however, due to the winter operations program, EIA still maintains 99.41 per cent annual runway availability and 86.8 per cent on-time departures.

How we do it

The heavy equipment obstacle course, part of the annual refresher training for winter operations that starts in late August.[/caption]


EIA doubles the number of shifts in winter to six, running four days on and four days off, employing 49 people. Four crews work on the runways and taxiways, with two more clearing aircraft handling aprons. The winter crews have to be high quality and they are the pride of the airport, earning the coveted Balchen/Post Award for excellence in snow and ice control in 2012.

“The core of our safe, on-time operations is our staff, so our standards have to be high,” says Dean Ervin, director, operations and maintenance. “Only skilled, diligent people are accepted, and everyone has to successfully complete their winter ops training every year if they are going to work here.”

All winter operators at EIA must have at least a Class 1 licence, and even though most of the staff come back each year, all winter ops staff must successfully complete the annual operator competency training. The training includes radio operation, heavy equipment obstacle courses, and an AVOP (Airside Vehicle Operator’s Permit – an airside driver’s license) competency refresher drive on the airfield.

The need for this training is obvious as soon as the snow flies. When clearing snow from the runway, five trucks follow each other in staggered formation and only the first two trucks can see past the stream of snow. Operators must communicate with each other by radio while driving and operating the plows and sweepers. This work is conducted to schedule, while avoiding other ground vehicles and aircraft, with the aircraft having the right-of-way.

Annual refresher training runs from late August until mid-November, which is when winter operations shifts start. Winter shifts run until mid April.


EIA has also invested in the Runway Weather Information System, also know as RWIS or the “hockey pucks” for the shape of the sensors embedded in EIA’s runways. RWIS, in conjunction with advanced radar data, gives EIA such accurate weather forecasts that additional staff are always on hand ahead of any storm. As well, RWIS saves money by avoiding unnecessary applications of de-icing fluid to runways if a weather system is going to miss EIA.

EIA operations’ team also double the number of vehicles used in winter, employing 104 to keep the airport running. This in turn has required a newer, 52,000-square-foot airport operations facility to keep the equipment maintained in winter conditions.


One of the lessons that EIA operations has learned is that effective winter airport operations is not just about the runways. Effective operations need to avoid traffic “pinchpoints” anywhere on the apron. Proactive management of snow and ice across the whole airport requires clear communication protocols to ensure all airside tenants and operational staff understand changing conditions and potential impacts to business. The airport duty manager is the central point of contact for daily operational issues. Airside operations communicate through the airport duty manager for all winter operations and directly with Nav Canada for access to the airfield.

EIA is constantly reviewing procedures with the airlines and Nav Canada. As more, newer, and bigger aircraft are added to the operations schedule, procedures must change. More advanced security procedures with tighter screening requirements have to be incorporated, without affecting flight schedules. One change resulting from this review process was to change de-icing organization at EIA to a single-source provider, AeroMag, for greater efficiency. Aeromag can scale their operations up or down as weather and airlines require.

The winter operations crew clearing an aircraft handling apron near the terminal.

Environmental responsibility

Winter weather safety requirements make it necessary for EIA to use three-million litres of de-icing fluid each year. The glycol and other chemicals in this fluid must be removed before the stormwater can be allowed to return to the groundwater system. EIA’s engineered wetland for treatment of glycol-contaminated stormwater is the first of its kind in Canada, although it had already been proven in the U.S. and UK. The innovative design features flow control and distribution, an aeration system, nutrient addition process, a recirculation system, and the flexibility for expansion in the future. In the event that EIA needs to process an unusually large quantity of stormwater, the excess can be taken to a recycling facility offsite.


There is no question that winter operations are more challenging at any airport and EIA has particularly challenging weather due to Edmonton’s northern location. However, the technology and procedures exist to be able to operate regularly scheduled flights and safety all year.

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