How Erie Int’l Bounced Back After 5 Feet of Christmas Snow

How Erie Int’l Bounced Back After 5 Feet of Christmas Snow
Brian Salgado
Published in: 

Erie International (ERI) is used to sudden bouts of heavy snow, courtesy of nearby Lake Erie. It’s not unusual for the Pennsylvania airport to get 20 or 30 inches at a time. But even ERI’s seasoned personnel were challenged when a lake-effect storm lingered longer than usual and pounded the airport with more than 5 feet of snow—at Christmas, of all times. 

In just two days, the storm dumped 63 inches of snow—nearly half of the area’s annual volume. 

The localized blizzard may have dampened some Christmas cheer, but a team effort from airport personnel, police officers, airline employees, rental car companies and even folks from a neighboring airport helped operations resume in about two days.  


Project: Snow Storm Response

Location: Erie (PA) Int’l Airport

Storm Specifics: Stationary lake-effect storm pounded airport with 63 inches of snow & high winds beginning Dec. 24, forcing 2-day closure

Airfield Maintenance Crews: 6 employees

Equipment Fleet: 2 MB5 multifunction plow/broom vehicles from MB Companies; Oshkosh Class LII P-series plow; Oshkosh Class LV P-series plow; 2 Oshkosh high-speed rotary blowers; Case wheel loader; Bobcat skid steer

Team Effort: Airport employees from other departments & those scheduled for holiday vacations pitched in with snow removal operations; Pittsburgh Int’l sent blower & crew to help; police & airline personnel provided extra labor; car rental companies remained open

“Our crews did a heck of a job, especially only having six people out there,” says William Banister, ERI’s director of operations and maintenance. “Everybody came in to help out—even those on vacation. Everybody was in for a week straight.”

On the Horizon

The massive snowfall wasn’t a complete surprise to airport personnel. Crew Chief Chris Karotko still has a screenshot from his phone’s weather app, which forecasted up to 32 inches of lake-effect snow with winds reaching up to 45 mph. Though off by a factor of nearly 100%, even that amount would have proved daunting; so Karotko had second-shift personnel stick around to help clear the airfield and keep traffic landing and taking off. 

Then it started to snow, and it just didn’t stop. ERI officials soon shut down the main runway; and by 10 a.m. on Christmas, the entire airport was closed. 

According to Executive Director George Doughty, heavy snow accumulation was a factor in shutting down operations. However, the main reason was the blinding conditions, which forced managers to suspend snow removal efforts for the safety of their crews. 

“Once you recognize that you can’t remove snow that’s accumulating that fast, you know you have a runway condition no one is willing to operate on,” explains Doughty, who missed part of the storm while visiting relatives for Christmas. “Normally, lake-effect situations have breaks—it snows for 12 hours, breaks for a few hours, then you get hit again. In this case, it came almost constantly over that period of time.”

In total, 13 inbound and 13 outbound flights were cancelled, and a few passengers had to seek shelter in the airport until conditions improved. Most passengers, however, managed to find their way to nearby lodging or stayed with friends and family in town. 

After conditions cleared up a bit, maintenance crews started working to remove snow from the airfield and relocate it off the runways. ERI’s fleet includes two large multi-function vehicles from MB Companies that plow and broom pavement at the same time; two high-speed blowers; two plows and a broom vehicle.  The airport also has two single-function plows and a broom vehicle. However, one blower broke down in the middle of the cleanup operation. 

Fortunately, nearby Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) came to the rescue. After ERI’s blower stopped working, PIT not only sent one of its own blowers to replace it, it also sent a crew to train ERI’s people how to operate it. Moreover, the crew remained on standby in case ERI needed additional manpower. 

After clearing away the bulk of snow, crews also focused on making the runways and taxiways usable. Multi-purpose vehicles spread sand as they plowed, and a separate piece of equipment sprayed deicing fluid to prepare the pavement for aircraft. 

Post-Storm Analysis

Despite the deluge of snow, ERI only sustained minimal damage to a few marking lights and one sign panel. The record-breaking storm did, however, leave a significant dent in the airport’s annual supplies of sand, liquid deicer and salt. It also socked the maintenance budget with lots of overtime charges. Economic hits notwithstanding, Doughty says the overtime pay is a sign of the teamwork that was required to get the airport through a very difficult situation. 

“One of the nice things that happens is everybody pitches in,” he remarks. “We had a real coming together of airport staff to get the place back open.”

Everyone at the airport played a role in getting operations up and running by Dec. 27, he notes. Airport police officers drove snow equipment; airline personnel worked alongside airport crews to dig out their planes; and rental car companies stayed open despite the conditions to provide stranded passengers with transportation. 

“This is typical of small airports—everybody knows everybody, so we can get everyone where they want to go as soon as we can,” Doughty comments. 

The lone hiccup ERI encountered was working with FAA’s new Runway Condition Assessment Matrix (RCAM), which was rolled out in October 2016. RCAM ties the type of weather contaminants to specific aircraft manufacturers braking performance data and standardizes the method for determining and reporting surface conditions.

Unfortunately, RCAM was down for maintenance during ERI’s monster snowfall, and airport personnel were forced to call FAA Flight Service multiple times. This expanded what should have been a 10-minute process to almost a half-hour, depending on what the issue was and how long it took to be resolved, explains Banister.

Snow storage was another challenge. Between the 63 inches of snow that fell around Christmas and the additional 2 feet that followed on New Year’s Eve, finding space for snow piles was a lingering concern. In fact, ERI had to keep some taxiways and other areas closed due to lack of storage space for all the snow. 

Within a few weeks, however, unseasonably warm temperatures and rain melted a sizeable amount of the snow. “We still have piles, but most of the snow was eventually eliminated by the 50-degree weather,” Doughty reported in early January. “Mother Nature helped out.” 


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