Preparing for Winter Weather a Team Effort

Dec. 15, 2023 - It hasn’t snowed in Charlotte since January 2022, but crews at Charlotte Douglas International Airport are ready for it.  “We’re never going to be caught off guard with winter weather,” said Jeff Perry, director of operations for regulatory compliance at CLT. “We’re always prepared.”

Making sure CLT is ready for whatever comes our way is a massive team effort. Similar to the way the Airport prepares for hurricanes and thunderstorms, our team is in contact with the National Weather Service (NWS) and makes plans based on their forecasts. “With a couple of days’ notice we can put all the pieces together,” said Mike Tobin, emergency operations manager for CLT.

Keeping the Runways Clear

“The challenge we have in Charlotte is we always seem to be on that cusp of 32 degrees,” Perry said. Winter weather here can quickly change from rain to frozen precipitation and back again. “We have to be strategic with how and when we treat the runways and taxiways. If we treat the surface too early, it could wash away, and it’s not going to be effective.”

The Airport uses a special solution that is safe for planes and the environment. It forms a barrier on the pavement that lowers the temperature at which ice would form to around minus 60 degrees. The Airside Operations crew conducts hourly inspections using a device that measures how well brakes work on the runway’s current conditions. Based on the results, the crew will either retreat the surface or move on to the next runway.

CLT has numerous trucks equipped to handle just about anything. These multifunction trucks have blades, brooms and blowers.  

Well before the temperature drops to anywhere near freezing, the maintenance crew starts running drills. “We’re not like northern airports that get snow regularly,” Perry said. “We don’t want to get rusty, so we are constantly practicing those skills.” If you see heavy equipment on the airfield, it doesn’t always mean snow is in the forecast, it may just be a practice run.

What if it Snows?

Although it doesn’t happen in Charlotte very often, planes can take off and land while it’s snowing as long as the runways are clear and dry. “Once you get in a rhythm during a snow event and you have a good flow, you can effectively keep two runways open,” Perry said. Two out of three runways might not be able to accommodate a full slate of flights, but Perry says the airlines are very proactive. “If they think we’re going to have a snow or an ice event here, they’ll make adjustments. They’ll divert. They’ll do what they need to do get people and equipment out of harm’s way.”

People often ask if the Airport has a massive fleet of snowplows like other large hubs. Perry says that wouldn’t be necessary considering Charlotte’s climate. CLT has various types of snow equipment for different uses. The Airport also contracts with several construction companies that can add snow removal equipment to the front of their big trucks and come help us out.

Ice is Another Story

Planes can’t take off on an icy runway and ice is harder than snow to remove once it has accumulated. You can’t use a plow truck on ice. That’s why CLT crews work so hard to prevent ice from forming in the first place.

Deicing Planes

There is an actual deicing season in aviation. It runs from October to April. During those months, deicing is done frequently. Think of it like defrosting your car before driving to work; overnight moisture gets in the air and freezes on the windshield. In 2022, which was a mild winter, 887 planes were deiced. CLT has 41 deice trucks, which, in the current configuration, are spread out on the airfield to treat planes. For the 2024/2025 season, a new, centralized deicing pad will open. “Treating the airplanes in one location is more efficient because once deicing is complete, the aircraft doesn’t have to take a long taxi route,” Perry said. “It can go right out to the runway.”

Storm Ready Airport

CLT is a certified Storm Ready Airport with the weather service. That means we have all the appropriate plans, procedures and communications in place. Only 31 airports with commercial flights are certified, and Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) is the only other North Carolina airport on the list. “We’ve been in this program for several years,” Tobin said. “It’s another level of assurance in the emergency management world that we’ve gone through the appropriate process and procedures and are ready for severe weather.”

“The Airport never closes,” said Tobin. “There may not be flights coming in and out on all runways, but the doors are always open.”

Check out our previous blog in The Window Seat to learn how CLT prepares for severe weather like hurricanes.