For professionals like Snowlift LLC, removing snow at airports requires year-round work. “It’s a seasonal business as far as performing the functions of actual snow removal, but it’s a full-time, year-round business getting ready for the next snow season,” President Michael Ferrucci stresses. “When the calendar turns to spring, we work just as hard to ensure our equipment is ready to go when that first snow flake falls come November.”
Snowlift LLC maintains a fleet of snow removal equipment at each airport it services. These include some of the largest and busiest in the United States: John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, Teterboro, and Newark airports in the New York area, Boston’s Logan International Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports.
“At each airport, we own most of the equipment that is dedicated to specific customers all year,” Ferrucci emphasizes. “Then we hire additional equipment to help. This year alone, we added to our fleet, purchasing another 150 new pieces of equipment – payloaders, skid steers, melters, trucks. We keep adding to our fleet every year. It just keeps going. If you’re going to be in airport snow removal, you have to have the equipment on-site ready to go.” At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Snowlift LLC uses 90 pieces of equipment alone just to keep United Airlines’ hangar, maintenance and cargo areas clear of snow.
Melters with capacities to handle anywhere from 20 to 350 tons of snow hourly are used to dispose of the snow that is removed. Thermal burners with capacities from 8 million to 9 million Btus are on each end of the melters. They heat approximately 300 gallons of water that melts the snow when front end loaders dump it into them. The melted snow is then discharged into the stormwater discharge system as clean water. Ferrucci states that the company has more than 50 such melters in its fleet.
Snowlift LLC does some repair work and equipment painting for other companies and airlines, but most of its maintenance efforts are spent on getting its own equipment ready for the next winter. “We build our own snow melters and our own plows,” Ferrucci notes. “We refurbish our equipment and repaint it. We make modifications to fit our equipment with attachments to allow for quick-connect or disconnect of accessories onto our equipment. We’ve had them for years. We just keep modifying things and changing things around. We have a licensing agreement with Trecan Combustion of Canada to build snow melters for ourselves only.”
At First Dusting
“Our winter ends in April, and we immediately start getting ready for the following year,” Ferrucci relates. “Between bidding contracts, refurbishing and building equipment, as well as having to ID all the employees that work for us in the winter for the FAA and Homeland Security, it can seem to the casual observer like you only work a couple days a year, but it takes all year to do it. There are not a lot of companies that are just dedicated to snow removal – they do other things during the year like landscaping or construction, but this is our sole business.”
Most of Snowlift LLC’s contracts specify that snow removal operations should begin at the first dusting of snow on the ground. “We’ll start sweeping the lead-in lines and taxi lines,” Ferrucci explains. “At 1 inch, we start plowing, and continue operations until all the snow is cleared and our customers are satisfied. It could be an hour – it could be three days. We don’t stop in that time. Once we get enough snow piled, we start melting. It’s a continuous operation right from beginning to end.”
Accurate forecasting is critical for success. “If we hear a forecast of snow eight to 10 hours before the expected storm, we start scheduling people to come in – supervisors, mechanics, operators and other support staff, everybody – so we’re ready to go when it starts snowing,” Ferrucci says. With penalties for flight delays stiffening, keeping the taxiways clear is crucial. “The way the contracts are written, we have to be there, ready to go,” he emphasizes. “There are no holidays in the snow removal business, Christmas or New Year’s – we’re there.”
Of course, sometimes there are false alarms. “We still have to be there, on standby, ready to go,” Ferrucci points out. At Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Snowlift LLC is responsible for clearing more than 130 acres of pavement. “We start work well before a storm, and when we leave, there’s not a drop of snow left on the ramp anywhere,” he stresses.
Snowlift LLC needs a substantial pool of seasonal drivers, because not all employees are available for each storm. “On average, we need around 250 operators just at JFK alone for every call-out, so we need to have at least double that for when it comes time to replace operators,” Ferrucci notes. For JFK airport, Snowlift has a pool of from 500 to 600 drivers. “If the storm is extended, then we need those relief drivers on-site and ready to work,” he points out.
“While the long hours of a snowstorm can deplete any work force, most operators can work anywhere from eight to 16 hours, and then we relieve them,” Ferrucci says. “They receive breaks with meals provided by Snowlift and time to rest during their shifts.”
As an army of soliders moves on its stomach, so does an army of snow plowers. “A big function is feeding our operators,” Ferrucci points out. “We can be there for a couple of days, and the operators are fed three meals a day. We’re trying to feed 300 to 400 people at a time.” Besides the drivers and those feeding them, that figure includes supervisors, office workers and mechanics.
For the East Coast, last winter was an unending slog of major snowstorms. “Last winter was pretty active here,” Ferrucci concedes. “They were all large storms. Our winter basically ended in February, but from December to February, we had large storms right on top of one another.
“The challenge last year with the Dec. 26 storm that was not predicted until the last minute was trying to get everybody coordinated the day after Christmas, and it was quite difficult,” Ferrucci remembers. “Getting over a foot of snow at one shot is always difficult. But we got through it in a reasonable amount of time. Every customer was taken care of and satisfied. The public saw the news about the gridlock in New York City, but the airports were opened by the next day on the 27th.” Even after the snowstorms, Snowlift LLC continued to control ice formation and sweep small amounts of snow off the painted traffic lines on taxiways.
Another unusual storm on Oct. 29, 2010 dumped 1-1/2 inches of snow on Kennedy airport and more than 5 inches on Newark. Snowlift hires its seasonal employees to start Nov. 1 and finish April 30. “Two days away from the start date of most of our contracts, we should be ready, and we were,” Ferrucci remembers. “We brought in operators, even though we were not obligated to, but that’s what we take pride in – the service. That’s our commitment to our customers. It’s like an insurance policy by hiring us.”
Snowlift LLC’s liability insurance policy is just one of the many features that makes it a professional operation. “We have specialized aviation liability Insurance with high limits to cover potential damage to aircraft,” Ferrucci notes. “Very few snow contractors have that kind of insurance. The potential for one of these large machines to hit a plane in the worst of snow conditions is always great, but thank God, we haven’t had a major accident. Our safety record says a lot for us, too. It’s a very unique business.”
Economic pressures are mounting on airports and airlines to economize on snow removal. “We’re finding now more than ever since the economy has gotten so bad, a lot of small contractors will go into these airlines with low numbers,” Ferrucci maintains. “We turn to the airlines and say, ‘How could it be? It’s impossible – they’re not even covering their insurance – if they even have the right insurance.’ Snow removal at airports is much different than parking lots and shopping centers. Operators have to obtain airport security I.D.s, which you have to go to class for. To have the proper coverage, snow removal contractors have to have specialized and costly aviation liability insurance. It is a whole different ballgame.
“We utilize what we call a large-blade machine with a 20- to 32-foot snow plow on it,” he continues. “Other contractors will try to do it with a pickup truck. So you’re not matching apples to apples, and the customer doesn’t realize this until they get stuck in the storm. In this business, you can’t just look at numbers. A big part of it is who is qualified, who has the equipment and who has the reputation for being able to do the job. If you don’t have that, all of a sudden an airline can have planes delayed – that’s going to cost them thousands of dollars.”
Smaller airports are starting to realize the need for more professional snow removal as well, and that is where Ferrucci sees growth possibilities for his company. For example, Snowlift LLC has contracts at the Teterboro, N.J., airport – which handles primarily small commuter and private planes. “We have picked up a considerable amount of work at these smaller airports, because they’re starting to realize the benefit of using a larger and more professional contractor such as Snowlift,” he says.