The Case for Heated Runways
February 19, 2014
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  • The snow has been falling all day, but the plane takes off right on time, no delays, no hassles. The missing piece of the puzzle to make this dream of easy wintertime travel a reality: heated runways.

    Research is under way around the world to find economical ways to heat airport surfaces or develop pavement resistant to freezing. Widespread use is still probably five or 10 years away, even though heated pavement is already used by hospitals, office buildings, shopping malls and luxury homes.

    The desire for heated runways to keep planes moving in storms has taken on new urgency after this winter’s serial snowstorms and nearly nonstop ice. The idea has been kicking around since the 1970s.

    So far this year, more than 76,300 flights have been canceled, leaving millions of travelers in the lurch and costing airlines and airports millions in revenue. The number of flights canceled in January and February is double the number for the same period the past two years combined, according to FlightStats Inc.

    Airports can’t use salt because it is too corrosive to aluminum airplanes and jet engines, though there are some chemical deicing fluids that can be used on airport pavement. Plows and sweepers can clear runways and taxiways, but each time crews have to hit the runway, it slows operations considerably. Many airports have invested in tricked-out plows capable of clearing runways rapidly. Even those can’t always keep up.

    Some airports are using heated surfaces on a small scale. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, two taxiway bridges over roadways have embedded pipes that carry heated oil, keeping the surfaces free of snow and ice for planes without having to plow it onto passing cars below. At Oslo’s Airport, some gate areas use geothermal heated-water systems to keep aircraft parking areas clear of snow and ice.

    Big airports like Boston’s Logan International place giant snow-melters in terminal areas because snow can’t just be pushed aside without blocking gates and roads. Often flights remain grounded even when weather has turned favorable for flying as storm cleanup can take a day or more. Of course, heated runways won’t solve every winter storm issue. Airlines still face difficulties from lack of visibility for takeoffs and landings to ground workers unable to get to work.

    The Federal Aviation Administration says heating systems could enhance safety, reduce snow removal time and minimize travel disruptions. But airports, airlines and the FAA all say it boils down to money: Heating large airport surfaces is too expensive.

    “There’s a better way to do this than snowplows going up and down. It’s just a matter of finding it,” said Ernie Heymsfield, an associate professor at University of Arkansas, who recently completed a solar-powered heated runway project for the FAA using concrete with steel fibers and graphite dust embedded in it to conduct energy. It wasn’t reliable enough during cold and windy conditions, the team’s report to the FAA said, and the costs were substantial.

    Now Dr. Heymsfield is working on embedding wires in grooves in airport surfaces similar to wires embedded in a car’s rear window.

    The FAA is funding a large-scale test of geothermal heating at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Pipes have already been embedded in a gate area at the Binghamton airport terminal, and 20 500-foot-deep wells are currently being drilled. Testing could begin as early as March 1.

    The wells are filled with tubes that carry water deep below the surface where it is heated to 55 degrees. Then the temperature is boosted with a heat pump, and the water is used to warm antifreeze that circulates under the airport tarmac. The hope is that it will be cheaper to operate over large surfaces than an all-electric system. If it works, “you never have to shut things down theoretically,” said William Ziegler, the associate professor running the research.

    The FAA says it just awarded two grants to Iowa State University, one to look at the economics of heated pavements at both large and small airports and the other to study concrete coatings that repel water. The FAA also gave Purdue University funding to study materials that could be added to pavement to delay freezing. But some in the aviation industry say airports should be taking the lead, rather than waiting for the FAA.

    There are no firm estimates of what it would cost to heat runways. Most of the expense comes from operating the systems, not from installing them. So much energy is required that they’ve only been appropriate for limited pavement areas, said Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and regulatory affairs at Airports Council International, an industry group representing airports. “They really aren’t feasible as replacements for conventional winter” snow removal, he said.

    “Nobody looks at what it costs not to do it,” said Alex Wilcox, an early executive of JetBlue Airways JBLU +3.21% and now chief executive of a private jet firm. He got stuck with his 9-year-old daughter for 12 hours on Jan. 3 at New York’s Kennedy International Airport when the departure time of his JetBlue flight kept getting pushed back, he said, because airport plows couldn’t keep up. He began thinking then of the tens of millions of dollars that might be saved with heated runways. “To me, it’s pretty simple math,” said Mr. Wilcox, who suggests passengers would willingly pay $1 extra in airport facility charges to fund heated runways.

    People who already have heated pavement chuckle at the struggle. Richard Silverstein, a Chappaqua, N.Y., doctor who specializes in headache treatment, has a $250,000 electric system that heats 7,000 square feet of driveway and walkway. Patients come to his home office and he was worried they could easily slip on ice.

    Dr. Silverstein said his system costs about $800 to run for 24 hours—before recent electricity rate increases. He thinks train stations, airports and other public places should have it.

    “It’s like the snow didn’t snow there,” Dr. Silverstein said of his driveway.