How Manchester Airport prepares to minimise the disruption caused by snow and ice

Winter weather can be disruptive to transport networks - and this is particularly true when it comes to airports. There are around 20 miles of runways, taxiways and stands at Manchester Airport and keeping that entire network free from ice and snow to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum is a real challenge. Here we take a look at what goes into making sure Manchester Airport keeps going through the winter.    

Why do snow and ice cause problems at the airport?  

It goes without saying that landing a plane on a slippery runway would be dangerous. But the issues caused by snow and ice go far beyond that. As well as the 20miles of runways, taxiways and stands at the airport, there are significant road and footpath networks as well as multiple carparks, several of which are uncovered and exposed to the elements. There is also a train, tram and bus interchange on site that can also be impacted by wintry weather.     

How does Manchester Airport monitor the weather? 

We use sophisticated weather forecasting systems to make sure we can prepare for whatever the climate throws at us - this includes being aware of the exact air pressure around the airport, the precise level of clouds and more. In the winter this helps us not only to have a good idea of when snow is likely to fall - but also to know what the temperature of the tarmac on the airfield is going to be. The temperature of the ground on a cold night is actually cooler than that of the air - so even if the air temperature is above zero, the temperature of the tarmac of the airfield can be below zero meaning moisture can quickly turn to ice.   

Manchester is well known for its inclement weather meaning it is really important that we're well prepared for quick changes in conditions. It's also not uncommon for weather conditions to be quite varied even within a relatively small area - it can easily be snowy at the airport but not in the town centre and vice versa. That's why it's doubly important that we're vigilant and quick to react to changes. 

During the winter months there is an adverse weather standby team on a rota as well as those who are already working meaning we can quickly deploy a huge number of people to make sure things stay running smoothly. 

How do you treat the airport - and airfield particularly - to minimise the effects of snow and ice?    

The road network, footpaths and car parks around the airport are treated with grit and salt in the same way as other busy roads and pavements to make sure they're safe for users.    

On the airfield it's a slightly different picture. Grit isn't suitable on airfields as it can damage aircraft and is corrosive. The runways are treated with de-icing fluid that prevents them from freezing. The surface is also slightly grooved to provide better traction for aircraft when it is wet or icy.    

The de-icing treatment will prevent some snow from building up but that can still happen in heavy snow. That's when we rely on our fleet of more than 30 snow clearing vehicles (pictured above) and over 180 workers trained to clear snow. They can  clear  significant snowfall in a relatively short time and can quickly make sure runways are safe. 

Our brand new fleet of snow clearing vehicles includes tractors that can be equipped with a range of attachments including ploughs and brushes, and combined jet blowers that are fitted with ploughs, blowers and brushes   

Why does Manchester Airport have to stop operations when it snows?    

We close the airfield when the depth of snow gets to a particular level. Doing this allows us to mobilise our full fleet of snow ploughs and clear the runways more quickly. These closures are usually for very short periods of time.    

How do airports in snowy countries operate? Why are they able to operate in much worse conditions than in this country?    

There are lots of reasons - but a key one is that at temperatures around freezing point snow tends to be wetter because not all of it is frozen. This means it turns to slush and ice which is both more slippery and harder to clear. When the temperature is lower than -2c the snow is drier and more powdery and easier to clear or blow away.