Much of Britain is bracing itself for snow and ice this week as the ‘Beast from the East’ arrives from Siberia to set up residence over the UK for the next few days.

Hopefully this represents winter’s last gasp, but it looks like it won’t be leaving without a fight, with the current forecasts showing up to 10cm of snow for some of the London airports on Thursday and into Friday.

But what’s the effect it has on air traffic operations? Obviously no one ever likes to be delayed, but snow can have a serious impact in a way few people really appreciate. The airport and airlines will be working incredibly hard to keep people moving, but the task shouldn’t be underestimated – it’s not just a case of getting the ploughs out

If aircraft, runways, taxiways and aprons are contaminated with snow or ice then they will need to be cleared. This inevitably takes time which in turn reduces airfield capacity, both in terms of the runway and freeing up stand space for new arrivals. If the snow is heavy, the controllers in the tower will also be operating using ‘Low Visibility Procedures’ where aircraft have to move around more slowly and be kept further apart.

All this is done purely to keep people safe, but it unavoidably slows the whole operation.

Depending on the severity of the weather and situation on the ground, it might also be necessary for us to work with the airlines and airports to agree what are called ‘flow regulations’ to reduce the number of flights arriving into the airspace. This is to ensure arriving traffic levels do not exceed what the airport has capacity for on the ground while they’re busy de-ice aircraft and clearing snow. These measures are never introduced lightly, but might see aircraft being diverted or delayed at their departure airport before taking off.

If all these factors conspire together, it creates an extremely challenging operational environment and that’s even before you factor in the difficulty of getting people – passengers and employees – to and from the airport as well.

So if the snow really does arrive in earnest this week, try and remember there will be teams of people made up from across the airlines, airports and air traffic control doing their very best to keep you moving, but more importantly to keep you safe.


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