Snow, FAA changes taxing airport staff, budget

Passengers claim their baggage at Missoula International Airport on Tuesday before heading out into snowy conditions across the city. Above-average snowfall and changes in FAA regulations are taxing the airport’s snow-removal budget. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Above average snowfall and changes in Federal Aviation Administration regulations are testing the snow-removal budget at Missoula International Airport, the director said on Tuesday.

With the snow flying once again, Airport Director Cris Jensen and members of the Missoula Airport Authority said efforts to comply with FAA regulations regarding “contaminants,” or snow, ice and rain, will likely test the airport’s budget before winter gives way to spring.

“Our concern primarily is not wearing our staff out,” said Jensen. “They’ve really had some long days and nights and put in a lot of hours. You can see that in the overtime expense that we’re generating right now. We’ve watched a lot of other airports struggle, where we managed to stay open and operational.”

Over an average winter, Jensen said, the airport typically sees a total of 40 inches of snow. Last year it recorded 30 inches.

But before the snow began to fall Tuesday, the airport was already sitting at 42 inches of snow with several months left in the season. The National Weather Service attributed the above-average snowfall to a mild la nina.

“We’ve plowed as late as June 7, and I’m really hopeful it’s not that kind of year,” said Jensen. “We fully expect that February will be a busy winter month. I expect we’ll overrun this budget for line-items by snow removal. We may do it today, in fact.”

Aside from the snow, Jensen said the FAA has changed its runway condition assessment, making it more challenging for the airport to maintain what the FAA views as an acceptable level of contaminants.

The changes have forced the airport to respond to runway conditions that, before the new regulations were implemented, would not have commanded the attention of staff.

“Where we might have started plowing at a half-inch of snow accumulation, we’re now brooming at the first snow flake,” Jensen said. “As soon as it starts snowing, we’re rolling equipment, which certainly adds cost onto fuel, equipment at time.”

To keep pace with the snowfall and FAA changes, airport staff are working to rotate employees through long shifts. Ground crews are working 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Half work the 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift while the other half work 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.

It’s possible, Jensen said, that he and assistant airport director Brian Ellestad would have to staff the plows and brush trucks as well. They expected to be on call Tuesday night.

“We’re trying to get them some relief and we’ve been focused on making sure there’s a sufficient rest period,” Jensen said. “Right now we’re limiting them to 12-hour shifts. It’s not ideal and over the course of time it’ll start to wear them out.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com