Clear and safe runways

KCI field maintenance crews tackle snow, ice, pavement repairs

Melissa Cooper and Rich Weems

As a cold front with high winds approached the Kansas City International Airport during the heavy travel days bookending Thanksgiving last year, Melissa Cooper and Rich Weems were on high alert.

The forecasting service they hire, an independent firm called Weather or Not, was mostly calling for rain. But with temperatures expected to hover around the freezing point, “there’s an outside chance this could turn bad,” advised an incoming phone call from the service.

Chances are something the KCI Field Maintenance Division doesn’t take. Their charge is keeping the runways and surrounding property safe and clear of winter precipitation on pavement surfaces. So in preparation for potential icy conditions, crews made certain that two trucks were filled with de-icing chemicals. Meanwhile, 1,000 tons of sand sat heaped in a storage facility and a fleet of trucks outfitted with snow blowers, sweepers and plow blades was parked and ready for action in the equipment storage barn.

If a dry snow falls on the airport’s 160 lane miles of runways and taxiways, the trucks blow and sweep it off. Wet or icy snow is scraped, sometimes after the pavement has been treated with chemicals that inhibit stickiness, much like a cooking spray for pans and skillets.

“Snow removal is sometimes science, sometimes luck,” says Cooper, who manages the division’s nearly 60 employees. “It’s really an art form.”

Cooper has been interested in aviation ever since high school, and once wanted to be a corporate jet pilot. She acquired a pilot’s license, but decided the lifestyle wasn’t appealing. “It’s a whole lot of hurry up and sit.” Still, she loved the industry, and earned degrees in aviation management, technology and safety. She joined KCI in summer 2014 after serving as assistant manager at the Downtown Airport.

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The Aviation Department operates Charles B. Wheeler Downtown and KCI airports and is supported wholly by airport user charges.

More than 10 million passengers arrive and depart KCI annually via nonstop service to 44 destinations.

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At KCI she works closely with Weems, a former maintenance superintendent who now manages planning and engineering for major maintenance and minor construction projects. They, in turn, work with six crews responsible for: access and security; streetlights, airfield lights and lighted signs; pavement striping, non-lighted signs and a mobile radio system; landscaping, mowing, fencing and pavement repairs; and turf and pavement maintenance around the perimeter of the airport’s 10,000 acres.

“It’s a real point of pride for these guys not to let the runways close,” Weems says. “The crews who work in the airport environment are the only ones in town who can do these jobs well, and they know it.”

During the 2009 Christmas Blizzard when most of the Midwest was hit with two feet of snow, the KCI runways were closed for only 14 hours—a feat Weems calls “pretty remarkable” compared to longer shutdowns at other major airports. Decisions on whether or not to fly, however, are always made by individual airlines.

The Field Maintenance Division takes care of three runways at KCI, each about two miles long. The Federal Aviation Administration inspects these annually, literally measuring stripes, slopes, depressions and ruts with a ruler. Weems notes that the Field Maintenance Division has one of the finest equipment storage buildings in the country. The “barn” is large enough to house 15 plows, seven blowers, two street sweepers and 10 front brooms. In addition to ongoing repairs and keeping the area clear after snow and ice, the crews also use the equipment after heavy rains when seagull-attracting earthworms slither onto the pavement.

“This industry has no room for error,” sums up Cooper. “The people who work in aviation have a level of excellence I haven’t always found in other industries. We play by the rules and we emphasize safety. I’m proud to work with the maintenance crews because they understand that what they do impacts the entire airport economy.”