Winter weather a challenge at airport

HOUGHTON – Slippery roads and blowing snow make driving cars difficult, so Copper Country residents shouldn’t be surprised that pilots have no desire to land in a whiteout, or on snow-covered runways.

That’s why plowing is the number one winter priority at Houghton County Memorial Airport, where staff work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep runways safe and snow-free.

“Other airports get what they call an event, a storm that last two to eight hours,” said Airport Manager Dennis Hext. “Our event starts in the beginning of December and last until the end of February – if we’re lucky.”

That’s also why flights might be canceled, which has happened a bit more frequently than usual this winter.

But despite the harsh winter, the airport hasn’t been overwhelmed, Hext said. He plans ahead for about 250 to 300 inches of snow, and budgets between $15,000 and $20,000 for diesel to run his plows and snow-blowers. He’ll may go over that budget by 10 to 20 percent this year, but not by enough to jeopardize key services.

“We might have to forgo travel next year,” he said.

The cold weather has also been hard on equipment, but the staff that fix the equipment “are very good at what they do,” Hext added.

For SkyWest Airlines, Houghton County’s only commercial airline, things have been a bit more difficult, as no amount of preparation can allow them to fly through dangerous weather.

About 15 percent of SkyWest’s Houghton County flights were canceled in December, and another 20 percent in January, according to Hext.

Those numbers are higher than for the last few years, he said, but about average over the long run.

SkyWest spokesperson Hazel Sainsbury couldn’t confirm the numbers, but said this winter has been especially challenging.

“We have certain minimums for visibility,” Sainsbury said. “When those minimums aren’t met, we decide it’s not to safe to land in an airport.”

Occasionally, flights in progress have to turn around, but “most of the time we can forecast that and determine what needs to be done before flights ever leave.”

When flights must be canceled, SkyWest attempts to send extra planes, or larger ones, as soon as possible to get passengers where they need to go – as they did following last week’s blizzard.

“They try to send up a 70-seater, if they have one available, so people stranded here can get out,” Hext said.

SkyWest’s other winter priority is de-icing. Hext, who sees their employees at work, says that’s a tricky process that requires precise timing – much like having runways as clean as possible for takeoffs and landing.

There’s only a short window between the end of de-icing and when pilots can take off, he said. If pilots haven’t finished their pre-flight checks before the end of that window, they have to start the entire process over again.

Despite winter adversity, “SkyWest does a good job of getting in and out under very challenging conditions,” Hext said.

All in all, while this winter might be somewhat harsher than normal, “we’re prepared for it, and kind of used to it,” he said.