With the unseasonably cold weather sweeping across Europe disrupting European air traffic since December 17, 2010, will winterized or snow-resistant runways become standard in the future?
By: Ringo Bones
The unseasonably cold weather sweeping across Europe during the last few days had certainly put a damper on the busily hectic travel schedule this Yuletide Season. Heathrow Airport – one of the European air spaces’ busiest – had been paralized for a few days since Friday December 17, 2010 due to really heavy snowfall. So does other major European airports in Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Brussels. Lufthansa had even advised their advance ticket holders to expect cancellations and wait for weather updates. With flight schedule delays becoming the norm – rather than the exception – during this once in every 20-year heavy snowfall, are winterized snow-proof runways be the solution?
From the airport operator’s perspective, winterized or snow-proof runways could make much more economic sense than using currently available runway de-icing machines that costs on average 2 million US dollars each that are only used once every 20-years or so. And believe it or not, research in winterized or snow-resistant runways dates back as far as the 1960s. Back then, fertilizer – of the common form and garden variety – is hardly a product ordinarily associated with advanced aviation research. Yet aviation researchers back then had surmised that in the near future, you may see airport runways coated with artificial manure as an aid to bad weather landings – as it promises to help keep aircraft from skidding on icy runways.
The substance being examined as a promising de-icer is urea, a commercial fertilizer that also acts as antifreeze. Early investigations during the 1960s showed that urea – sprinkled on a runway before or during a snowfall or freezing rain – can prevent ice formation, but long-term tests are needed to determine the effects of the chemicals on airframes and engines and to show what form of urea – powder, pellets or liquid – will prove most efficient in keeping airport runways ice-free. If these scheme works better than current ones, will it translate to costlier ticket prices / airfares during the winter season?