Arlanda: The airport that never closes

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — First Brussels and Paris fell. Frankfurt and London joined them as weary travelers spent Christmas camping on the hard terminal floors.

As a blizzard hit the the United States' East Coast, Newark and Boston shut down, even though the northeast United States habitually sees this much snow.

But in Stockholm, the planes kept moving. In fact, since Stockholm's Arlanda International has never closed because of snow since it opened in 1962.

Unusually cold, snowy weather has hit Europe this month, in some cases, breaking records. But the weather suffered in Ireland or France doesn't hold a candle to the chill in Sweden.

Many areas in the Scandinavian nation have experienced their coldest December since the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute opened in 1873. Stockholm has experienced the coldest December since 1788. The snow depth by the airport is 15 inches right now ; some winters it grows taller than 25 inches. Yet the airport has not closed.

How do the Swedes do it? First of all, the airport employs a crew of 130 people to fight the ice during the worst of winter. They use a fleet a Volvo vehicles including several that combine combine plowing, sweeping and blowing machines. The fleet is integrated with other airport traffic and given time slots for arrival and departure, just like planes are.

Before those vehicles hit the tarmac,  a 24-foot-wide plow clears most of the snow. In the middle of the plow is a cylinder that sweeps away snow and ice; the back of the machine carries a blow unit with a force of 130 meters per second. Nine vehicles travel side-by-side down the airport’s main runway, cleaning the two-mile long and 150-foot-wide area in 10 minutes.

“That makes us the fastest snow-clearing airport in the world,” said Stefan Sundkvist, who is field coordinator at Arlanda.

The airport’s three runways take six, eight and 10 minutes to clean.

”We have 250,000 square meters [almost three million square feet] to clean from snow and ice at the same time as airplanes take off and arrive. Nothing can be done by chance but all traffic must be directed and planned in detail,” Sundkvist said.

As the temperature dropped below freezing around Europe, many airports had trouble de-icing planes. Not Arlanda, which has a massive stock of de-icing liquid.

“We have no problems with that here," said Anders Bredfell, press director at Arlanda. "The problems are much bigger in London, Frankfurt and Paris. We have a major supply because we know that we have to defrost all the planes during the winter half year. Much snow is not a problem for us. We never close due to snow.”

The thought of all that de-icing fluid washing into the environment, as nearby snowplows chug out carbon emissions, would make an environmentalist blanch white as the snow. Arlanda shares the concern and is about to debut the world’s first snow sweeping vehicle fuelled by biogas.

“It is the first vehicle of its kind in the world. It can do anything the other snow sweepers can: plow, blow and sweep, but the big difference is that it driven by biogas," said Bertil Ekhaga, director of the airport’s machine fleet. "It is the first step toward zero [carbon dioxide] discharge for these heavy machines.”

And, with any luck, less emissions = less severe weather = fewer airport closures. It's that simple, right?

Alas, no. But apparently keeping a runway clear of snow can be.