FAA to Airports: Clear the Snow This Winter. Or Else

The agency has smacked airports in Cleveland and Detroit with nearly $1 million in fines. Denver has a "snowman" in the tower.

Wintry Weather Ohio Airports
Photographer: Mark Duncan/AP Photo

Major winter storms aren't just a colossal hassle for airlines and their passengers—airports have a huge job when it comes to monitoring their runways and keeping them cleared. Failing to do so can prove very expensive, as airport executives in Detroit and Cleveland learned recently. 

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday proposed a $200,000 civil penalty against the Detroit airport related to the icy conditions of a runway last November. That case comes two months after the agency hit Cleveland with $735,000 in proposed fines, accusing airport officials of not keeping runways safe and clear over a 15-month period through March 2015.

“Snow and ice removal at our nation’s airports is a critical safety issue,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a Sept. 18 statement detailing the problems at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. “We require airports to effectively manage this important responsibility.” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said such cases occur “very infrequently.” 

A spokesman for Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Michael Conway, said the airport experienced “extraordinary weather events” in February and November of last year. The FAA penalty relates to icy conditions at Detroit on the morning of Nov. 22 that caused an arriving Delta Air Lines flight to slide into the grass, caused three other flights to be stuck at a de-icing pad for three hours, and left a UPS cargo jet stuck on a taxiway after landing. “We did not follow exactly all the practices as prescribed in our FAA-approved snow and ice plan, and that’s what the FAA is focusing on,” Conway said.

The airport has hired 13 employees for runway monitoring and snow removal and plans to purchase $13 million in snow-removal equipment. 

For Cleveland, the FAA said it had conducted three investigations between December 2013 and February 2014 because the airport, owned and operated by the city, had “failed on numerous occasions” to keep the airfield clear of snow and ice. In their Oct. 9 response, Cleveland officials called the alleged violations “technical in nature.” 

“At no point during any of these events did the city do anything to make the airport unsafe for the airlines or the traveling public,” city attorney Jonathan Stone McGory wrote. Cleveland has 108 employees to handle snow for this coming winter, or 92 percent of the budgeted level, McGory wrote. Both civil cases are pending. 

Major airports make plans to manage snow and ice on their runways, taxiways, and other areas and are then required to follow those plans, which are reviewed by the FAA, when storms hit. That’s one reason officials were quick to note the snow-removal work that had been done on Runway 13 at New York’s LaGuardia Airport just before a Delta jet slid off during a heavy snow in March.

Since 2006, for example, Denver International has installed an employee in a “snowman position” in the control tower to confer with the FAA when extreme weather strikes the airport, spokesman Heath Montgomery said.

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