Breaking the Ice

2 September 2009 (Last Updated September 2nd, 2009 18:30)

Pasi Piirainen, service manager of de-icing for Finnair, explains the operator's strategies and technologies. These measures ensure that flights make their time slots in difficult conditions.

Breaking the Ice

De-icing regulations and activities are continually changing and adapting to new regulations and activities. Climate change and new weather systems have meant that airports and ground operatives have had to change systems and procedures that have been in place for years. Meanwhile, forecasting is becoming increasingly difficult when it must play a more important role.

Finnair has 50 airports where de-icing might be required so the systems are set up in the autumn and then checked for service level and quality throughout the year. The key element is de-icing statistics, which are used to analyse and discover better ways of doing things, whether it is buying services or outsourcing. Data is always kept up to date.

Changing times

Milder winters have forced a change in the usual de-icing activities. Finnair has been lucky though: we have had 30% less de-icing events than usual, compared with the last six or seven years. The main issue has been the change in conditions: we've had more icing problems than snowfall, while zero-degree temperatures present new problems.

Normally upper wing and snow and frost removal are done first, but when temperatures are at zero degrees there will be ice on the front of the aircraft, the edges of the wings, the engine intakes and fan blades so, although there have been fewer de-icing events, they have lasted longer and Finnair's technique has had to be changed.

"Climate change has led airports and ground operatives to change systems and procedures."

Pilots now arrive at the aircraft approximately 30 minutes before departure, check the aircraft and then order the de-icing, which then puts them in a queue. We have a computerised system with a de-icing coordinator who takes all the orders for de-icing, then ten minutes prior to departure the de-icing trucks will arrive.

Weather conditions at Helsinki airport can be treacherous for flying. Snowfall and zero-degree temperatures mean that weather forecasting is inherently linked to safety.

Forecasting not only means checking the weather conditions for flying, but also the activities required for an aircraft to be in the right condition to take off.

Ensuring the right number of staff with the right training is available when needed is the main headache. The de-icing coordinator has to decide on the following morning's manpower at 8pm the previous evening, according to the weather forecast. There are also airplane schedules to consider. Finnair has Asia routes, which means many aircraft leave between 5pm and 6pm, so there is a great need for de-icing within a short period of time.

We can forecast, but not accurately enough to avoid last-minute changes in resources. If there is 100%-accurate short-term forecasting for snow, then staff changes will be better planned. However, if there is snowfall forecast, but then no snow actually falls, extra staff will arrive with nothing to do. That's the worst-case scenario and at the moment it happens too often.

One way to manage this risk is to make sure that there are always staff trained in de-icing working on the apron, whether they are baggage-handling personnel or involved in refuelling the planes. This means they can be used if the snow comes and we're not fully prepared. We currently have 35 employees on the apron who can get involved.

"The aim of the DAQCP is to ensure that safety guidelines are followed."

Outsourcing and technology

Next winter, Finnair will have a baseline workforce within the company who can react at peak times with extra manpower and weather forecasts from outside companies. We're also giving smaller flights to other ground handling / de-icing companies at the airport, so for better efficiency we might have five companies working for us when we need them instead of sourcing all our staff from one central base.

We have been in a situation before when we were wasting manpower and, therefore, money.

The next system to be tested by our handlers is based on steam. A Canadian company has come over to do some testing and it's under discussion. The first meeting took place in August to finalise the details. Each airport has different conditions so there's a lot of testing involved to make sure we're getting the most efficient and functional technology for our needs.

We can't monitor all the airports Finnair flies to so we're involved in a scheme created by IATA called the de-icing / anti-icing quality control pool. We do cross-checks and then add the reports to a database so we can use them. Last winter, 3,500 airports and service providers were checked by the system and we have access to that data. I can check that the inspections that involve our airports are up to scratch and if there are any problems I can then contact the service provider.