Keeping the Runways Clear

photo by Eric Tadsen

On a beautiful summer afternoon in August, Alan "A.J." Graff, operations supervisor at the Dane County Regional Airport, starts his engine and taxis towards a runway at about 30 miles an hour. Airport Ground, one of four controllers in the tower, instructs him to proceed to runway 1-8-3-6, the primary north-south runway, then stop and wait for further instructions. Seconds later, a descending Delta flight zooms overhead and touches down smoothly. As it taxis down the 9,000-foot runway, Graff gets the okay to follow, and pulls out into the center of the 150-ft.-wide concrete track. But Graff isn’t piloting a plane, he’s driving down the center of the runway in a four-wheeled utility truck.

Just 30 years old, Graff has worked in Dane County airport operations for seven years, since landing an aviation management internship shortly after graduating from the University of Dubuque. That’s not the typical career path, he admits, but he was lucky. Jobs kept opening up, and he moved up the ladder fairly quickly.

Now, the Columbus, Wis. native is one of six operation supervisors helping assure the safety of planes and passengers on a daily basis. The drive he’s taking is one of two runway inspections he will make on his 2 p.m. to midnight shift, and it is monitored every second by at least two air traffic controllers gazing down from above. During the inspection, Graff will report any unusual FOD (foreign object debris) found on or around the runways — items such as nuts, bolts, fuel caps, tire fragments, mechanics tools, luggage tags, concrete or asphalt chunks, plant fragments and yes, bird or other animal strikes.

He drives on, scanning the immediate areas for faulty runway lights, and checking that fencing is secure. In winter, he would also use this opportunity to check for braking efficiency by conducting a Runway Friction Survey.

This day’s ride is, thankfully, uneventful.

Graff explains that anyone driving on an airfield must pass a special driver training course provided by the airport, and all employees must submit to background checks regulated by the TSA, including fingerprints. Graff, who has a private pilot’s license and is instrument-rated, hasn’t flown in a while. "I don’t have much of an interest in being a pilot," he says. "There are more opportunities in aviation. I like being around airports; I don’t need to pilot."

The runway safety check complete, he heads up to his office in a secured area the average traveler will never see. The expansive view of the field is breathtaking. In the corner of his office, a computer screen keeps track of approaching storm systems, and more importantly, every plane in the air (that has filed a flight plan), each indicated by tiny airplane symbols that blink and move like chess pieces as they fly to their destinations. The sheer number of flights in the air at any given time seems overwhelming.

Graff must have a significant knowledge of weather, because a large part of his job is anticipating when airlines might be diverted to Madison. With 30 diversions in June and 15 in July alone, this has been a particularly busy year for weather-related diversions. In the terminal, operations staff had to twice evacuate passengers due to severe weather. When that occurs, travelers are asked to move to a more secure part of the building, away from windows. "Everyone promptly ignores you," Graff smiles, half-joking, explaining that staff can only ask — not force — people to seek shelter.

When an airline notifies the airport of an impending diversion, Graff becomes a master coordinator. He determines where the plane will park once it lands, and works with the airline companies to determine whether passengers will need to deplane or whether the stopover will simply be a quick "fuel and go."

If deplaning is necessary, will passengers depart through a gangway, or down a movable staircase, for example? Will a gate be available or must the plane sit out on the tarmac? The legal liability rests with the airlines, not the airport, and it’s their responsibility to comply with the "three-hour rule."

That rule, which took effect in April, specifies that passengers can only be stranded on an idle airplane for three hours before they are given the option to deplane. Also, airlines are now required to provide adequate restroom facilities and food and water during lengthy delays. Graff and the airport staff help facilitate the regulations.

The challenge of irregular occurrences keeps Graff on his toes. The arrival of Air Force One, though rare, significantly affects an airport’s operations, as do medical emergencies, which also take priority. International flights diverted to Madison require a call to U.S. Customs.

There are strange stories, too, as one might imagine. Once, an anteater escaped from its cage and got into the baggage tunnel after a flight was diverted here from Minneapolis. Passengers had already deplaned when Graff got the call. He ran downstairs, unhooked the luggage cart containing the wild animal, moved it into a (non-public) garage area, then called animal control. All ended well, and the anteater made it to its intended destination — another zoo — unharmed.

Not surprisingly, winter poses the most challenges, according to Graff, who says coordinating snow removal is both the most stressful and the most rewarding part of his job. Depending on the size of an impending storm, he determines staffing levels needed and the number of equipment vehicles used for snow or ice removal. While his office decides whether or not to close runways, it is the pilot-in-command of an airplane that makes the final call as to whether or not to land or take off based on the information the airport has provided.

"There are three triggers that will close a runway," Graff said. If the runway braking test registers below optimal levels, when there is more than two-inches of snow on the runway, or when there is a half-inch or more of slush on the ground. Graff’s office has a direct line to the National Weather Service, and also monitors pavement temperatures.

"Just a few flurries can impact the airport," he said, "so we have to be proactive on getting a liquid de-icer down and have to keep reapplying it. The last thing you want to do is shut down."

Plows dispense sand, but salt is not allowed because it is corrosive to planes. It’s an expensive operation, he says, but his job is, after all, to be responsive.

Graff has a secondary role as an alternate airport security coordinator, helping to ensure that the airport’s security plan is adhered to at all times. If a passenger is on a watch list, or there is a report of an unruly or disgruntled passenger, he notifies law enforcement. "I don’t do law enforcement, I just help facilitate," he clarifies, "but it’s rewarding to know the impact my efforts have on maintaining a safe environment for those that travel in [and out of] the airport."

As a salaried Dane County employee, Graff is not allowed the travel perks often afforded an airline employee. He said job candidates for such positions must be able to think on their feet, respond appropriately, and not bend to pressure, because "we have to make tough calls in the name of safety."

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