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Logan snow forecast: 0"

Using mechanical beasts with 30-foot blades, airport aims to hold storms at bay

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By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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As snow swirled at Logan International Airport this week, 10 plow drivers cleared a 10,000-foot runway in just over 10 minutes. Then they turned onto the next runway and did it all again.

With more than 70 inches of snow having piled up in Boston so far this winter — 30 more than usual in an entire season — plow operators have been working around the clock, sleeping in bunks, and laboring in whiteout conditions to keep the airport operating.

Even with the majority of flights canceled during the two-day storm earlier this week, crews were able to keep two of the six runways open, allowing hundreds of flights to take off and land as snow and freezing rain pelted down.

Staying open during storms is a point of pride for airports, and Logan’s efforts have earned it two national snow-removal awards in the past six years. With back-to-back-to-back storms already busting the airport’s $6 million annual budget for snow removal — and only four flights diverted so far this winter — the storm crew could be on its way to more glory.

“I think we’re angling for another award,’’ said Thomas Kinton, executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan.

Clearing runways is a carefully choreographed operation, with an airport operations shift manager in the control tower keeping track of planes and others in trucks on the ground determining where to send the equipment.

The $750,000 plows — 68-foot beasts with 30-foot blades, 22-foot brooms, and 450-mile-per-hour blowers in the back — tackle each runway in tandem in a staggered line, stopping occasionally to let a plane take off or land.

A separate high-speed blower follows the plows, shooting 4,500 tons of snow an hour into the air to clear the edge of the runways.

As soon as snow starts accumulating again, the plows go back to take another swipe.

The goal is to have at least two runways open — Logan uses only two or three even on a good day, depending on wind speed and direction — to keep up with demand. That can reach 90 planes an hour during peak times, but it decreases greatly during storms.

Once a half-inch of slush or two inches of dry snow coat a runway, it has to be shut down to comply with federal rules. Runways also have to have a certain level of friction, measured by a Saab equipped with a friction-testing wheel and a computer, as well as by pilots, who report the level of snow “contamination’’ when they land, from “good’’ to “nil.’’

“If you hear a nil, it’s over. Game over. You shut the runway down,’’ said Edward Freni, director of aviation.

Wednesday’s mix of snow, sleet, and freezing rain — “the worst conditions you can have,’’ said airport operations manager Robert Lynch — complicated things, with crews racing to spread de-icing fluid and sand.

Runway conditions are just one piece of the puzzle airlines consider when they delay or cancel flights. They also factor in conditions in the various cities planes are flying from and how long it will take to de-ice planes at the gate, especially if they have been “frozen like popsicles’’ overnight, said Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran Airways.

“In bad weather like this, it’s a real scramble,’’ he said.

After it is plowed off runways, snow is usually left to melt on the infield, but this winter’s storms have been so relentless that crews have started carting out portable diesel-powered snow melters, making 100 tons of snow disappear in an hour — into a storm drain, through a filtration system, and into the harbor. The state has also given Massport permission to blow snow straight into the harbor, something it has done once so far this winter.

Nasty weather means a lot of overtime shifts and equipment maintenance. Massport estimated that as of this week it will have surpassed its $6 million annual snow-removal budget. To cover additional costs, Massport can raise airlines’ landing fees.

One silver lining: Massport has to pay Aero Snow Removal Corp., which removes snow around planes on the tarmac, only for 65 inches of snow removal. As of this week, its services are free. Aero Snow did not return calls seeking comment.

Logan’s record for weather-related delays is not that impressive. Boston has the sixth-highest rate of such delays among the 30 busiest airports in the country.

But winning the Balchen/Post Award twice in six years shows Logan’s dedication to snow removal, said Alex Kashani, chairman of the awards committee for the Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives. It gives out the award to North American airports based on size, snowfall totals, equipment, closings, and snow-removal plan, among other factors.

“They were one of the few airports that invested heavily in what they refer to as a multipurpose equipment’’ early on, said Kashani, referring to the mammoth plows with blades, brooms, and blowers. Kashani also cited the airport’s pavement sensors, which relay information about runway conditions, and its training regime, which includes sending staff to an annual snow symposium.

Logan’s reputation for snow removal has even spread across the Atlantic: A consultant for Heathrow Airport in London, which was crippled for days by a December snowstorm, recently called Massport officials to learn more about their snow removal plan.

Massport officials say they will be happy when the snow ends, however.

“Hopefully, we’ll have maybe a month and a half more of this, and then we’ll be cutting grass,’’ Freni said.

They aren’t the only ones who will be happy when the snow is gone. Plow drivers don’t get much rest when snow flies.

“Last week I slept in my bed one night,’’ said Richie Pelosi, one of about 100 equipment operators, mechanics, and electricians working to keep the airport open.

Pelosi, 52, who moonlights as a personal trainer, has been maintaining runways at Logan for 30 years — plowing in winter, painting in summer — and keeps a stash of energy bars, licorice, and ginger snaps in his cab to sustain him during shifts. He has been driving the same plow for 10 years and said its heated seats, mirrors, and glass make the work much more comfortable than it used to be, back when it took two hours to clear a runway.

But don’t think he is out plowing the neighborhood in his off hours. When he goes home to his wife in Peabody, he said, “I don’t want to look at snow.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.