As the wind whipped wisps of snow across the tarmac at Pittsburgh International Airport, ground handlers wore heavy coats, hats, gloves, and ski masks to combat the extreme cold on Wednesday, with temperatures around two degrees and expected to drop as the day continued.
Many schools and other public buildings closed due to unbearably low temperatures Wednesday and Thursday. But there won’t be any “snow days” or “two-hour delays” for Pittsburgh International, at least not for cold weather.
And as the region prepares for forecasted low temperatures and below-freezing wind chills, crews at PIT will be braving the cold to maintain the airport’s 24/7 operations.
Workers such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers, in addition to airfield operations and field maintenance crews, account for more than 200 Allegheny County Airport Authority employees at Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin.
Despite the extreme cold, trades work conducted outdoors must be done to ensure safety for the traveling public, said Jim Moorhead, assistant superintendent of Field Maintenance at PIT.
“Jobs like changing taxiway and runway lights and responding to potential water main breaks are essential,” Moorhead said. “We prepare our team to adjust to the temperatures accordingly through various weather and safety briefings, and stress the importance of limiting their exposure to the elements.”
Bo Muraco, mechanics supervisor at PIT, said limiting the amount of time spent outside is the key.
“Even though it’s been a mostly mild winter, when you get out on the airfield, it can be very cold,” Muraco said. “We just try to make the right decisions and pay attention to weather reports, and keep those things in mind so we work as safely as possible.”
In addition to trades work staffed by the Airport Authority, other essential airport jobs that require working outdoors include deicing, aircraft line maintenance and airline ground handling, which provides refueling and other maintenance services while an aircraft is stationed at its gate.
Trego-Dugan, a ground handler with about 70 employees at PIT, services Sprit Airlines, Alaska, Sunwing Airlines, Condor, and Frontier. Brent Kostella, ramp manager for Trego-Dugan, has worked on the ramp for 10 years. He described the airfield as a different environment.
“To summarize: it can be brutal,” Kostella said. “If it’s 10 degrees on a given day, it will feel like it’s 20 degrees colder at the airport. Working in these temperatures is like a marathon. You have to pace yourself, and the reality is, we can’t hide from the elements.”
So for passengers seeking comfort at the gate in the terminal before their flight, remember that crews are working hard to make sure airport operations continue safely and efficiently, even when it’s negative two degrees outside.