Weekend what we’re watching: Keeping airports open during winter, defining business class, possible pilot shortages


We look at how Scandinavian airports manage to keep their airports open even with days of non-stop snow. We have an explanation of what defines business class and discover that it is not too easy a class to define. And, USA Today takes a look at the possible pilot shortage new rules and low pay may be creating.

At Nordic airports, defying the snow is good sport

As airports were closed and flights canceled in record numbers here in the USA, Scandinavian airports with far more snow on a regular basis are staying open. How do they do it when vaunted American ingenuity can’t seem to tame nature?

Airports in much of the world get occasional snow, and North America has taken a beating this season. But in Nordic countries, where winter can last six months and airplane deicing starts in August, skill at operating through sleet, snow and frost is vital for business and is a point of pride.

Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport sets a goal of never succumbing to winter. “That’s also the sport of it,” says Arlanda operations head Lena Rökaas.

“We consider ourselves almost world champions,” says Heini Noronen-Juhola, vice president for aviation and safety at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Helsinki has developed more than 20 clearing routines, each linked to specific weather conditions. Ms. Noronen-Juhola considers the playbook “our big secret.”

As at other Nordic airports, Helsinki’s 120 maintenance people spend summers choreographing equipment. They usually clean tarmacs with diagonal rows of vehicles, sometimes referred to as a conga line. Each machine shoves snow to the vehicle behind it and ultimately off the edge of the runway. Drivers follow their maneuvers precisely so air controllers, who also know the routines, can time arriving and departing flights down to the minute.

A simple explanation of business class

A travel expert tries to explain business class and what to expect. After a sparse bit of history, he begins his not so simple explanation and finishes with an admission that, “Explaining how business class really works is harder than I had thought it would be.”

I want to explain all the terminology you will need to make the best decisions regarding a nice, comfortable, long flight on a route that is so desirable that only flight attendants with decades of experience are permitted to work the aisles.

If you are flying coast to coast or over to Hawaii, you will be able to fly business class in first class. That’s mostly because the airlines flying these routes find three-class service too confusing to deal with.

The airlines’ dirty little secret is that seats in the front are designated “first class” just because these are the first seats at the front of the aircraft. You would be wise not to confuse this location-based terminology with actual first-class service, because it’s really just a lesser form of business class or, to put it another way, a sort of premium economy.

Real business class does exist on flights from the U.S. to Europe, and that is good news if you are joining an escorted tour group, going on a European cruise or just getting around on your own using an app designed by some kids who have traveled extensively in Europe by watching YouTube videos of the Acropolis in their college dorms.

But, still, I have bad news: While most humans are good at heart and only wish to serve, that is not necessarily true of airlines, although some are more humane than others.

Cockpit crisis: Regional airlines struggle to hire pilots

Airlines are crying about a shortage of pilots. New FAA rules on pilot training and a long period of stagnation (actually a decline) in pilots’ pay coupled with a reduction in the number of pilots coming from the retiring military officer pool has begun to affect the numbers of pilots available for commercial airlines.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that demand has not outpaced supply yet, but that the future may prove to be a problem when it comes to maintaining the numbers of pilots projected to be needed.

…the Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing 50,000 pilots, said thousands of pilots are available after being furloughed or laid off by airlines. The average starting salary for a co-pilot at regional airlines is $22,400, however, which the union says makes it hard to justify $150,000 in training to become qualified.

“There is a shortage of pay and benefits for pilots in the regional airline industry, not a shortage of pilots who are capable and certified to fly the airlines’ equipment,” said Capt. Lee Moak, president of ALPA. “Congress, labor and the industry need to work together to create an airline industry that can offer jobs that are attractive to those who are interested in a career as an airline pilot.”

The FAA adopted several rules in recent years that make it tougher to be a pilot, after the Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed in 2009, which killed 50 people. Pilot fatigue and lack of training were among the causes.

  • Skeptic

    Hey Charlie,

    You may remember that airports in parts of the USA are actually as far north — and as snowy — as the Scandinavian airports you refer to in this article. My home airport, ANC, is not only farther north than Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki, but is also the major gateway for those flying into and out of my state, and a major cargo airport for heavies operating on routes between North America and Asian. It is closer to Toyko than to NYC and operates 24 hours per day, with its busiest passenger flight times between midnight and 3 AM due to the number of red eyes departing for the Lower 48. On top of all that, we only get 5 1/2 hours of tepid daylight here in one of our snowiest months, December, so runway maintenance really has to know what its doing.

    ANC’s management has received multiple awards for its snow removal prowess: http://www.airportimprovement.com/content/story.php?article=00563. So, next time you profile winter runway maintenance stories, you might want to mention that not all US airports struggle to stay open when it snows.

  • Charles Leocha

    Don’t complain to me. Write to the WSJ. I am only passing on an interesting story. You are, BTW, exactly right. Good point.