Six months before the Super Bowl, staff at St. Paul Downtown Airport have created an ambitious “to do” list for game day: Wrangle 100 extra employees from across the country. Buy a $200,000 truck to hold hundreds of gallons of de-icing fluid. Cordon off several runways and sketch out parking spaces for 200 planes.
“There’s no event as big as the Super Bowl in attracting the numbers of private aircraft,” said Joe Harris, who manages three Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) reliever airports. “This is the granddaddy.”
While Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport expects to handle most of the commercial air traffic during Super Bowl week, smaller Twin Cities airports like St. Paul Downtown Airport, Flying Cloud in Eden Prairie and Anoka County-Blaine are gearing up for their own big days. They predict more than 1,200 “aircraft operations” — takeoffs and landings — at the Twin Cities’ three largest reliever airports. Preparation includes a long list of tasks related to planes, people and parties.
“We want to put out that huge welcome mat,” Harris said.
For even smaller airports, like the city-owned Fleming Field in South St. Paul, it’s harder to plan because administrators don’t know how many planes to expect.
“It could be none. It could be 50-plus,” said Philip Tiedeman, Fleming Field’s manager.
Airport staff, including MAC employees and workers at the airport gas stations, are stocking up on essentials like fuel, traffic cones and marshaling wands for directing airfield traffic. But several variables, especially weather, make planning ahead tough, Harris said.
By far, the biggest question mark is the Feb. 4 forecast. To prepare for that, staff must brace for Minnesota’s worst.
That means stocking enough de-icing chemicals for hundreds of planes. De-icing fluid removes ice and temporarily keeps it from forming on the aircraft to make takeoff possible.
Signature Flight Support, one of the gas stations, plans on buying a new truck to hold and dispense 500 gallons of de-icing fluid even though workers may not need it, said Sandy Tachovsky, customer service manager at Signature.
De-icing is a common experience for passengers before their plane takes off, said Jeno Johnson, a corporate pilot for the Carlson company, who flew to the Super Bowl last year. “But now you have to do each individual small airplane — it’s a big deal.”
Flying in frigid weather isn’t unsafe, Johnson said, but it’s more work. Pilots have to warm up the plane, restock it after the removal of all the cold-sensitive items, turn on the water system and queue up for fuel and de-icing.
Learning from Houston
Super Bowl planning began more than 18 months ago. Last February, Harris visited Houston to observe its airport during Super Bowl week. It was helpful to see how logistics, security and ground transportation worked there, he said.
MAC staff has experience with big-ticket events, having prepped for the Professional Golf Association’s Championship in 2009, the Republican National Convention in 2008 and last year’s Ryder Cup golf tournament, Harris said.
Finding space to park planes will be a challenge, Harris said. Two runways and several taxiways will be blocked off at St. Paul Downtown Airport and converted to aircraft parking spots. Anoka County-Blaine and Flying Cloud airports will also have parking for 200 planes each, but other aircraft may have to go as far away as the St. Cloud, Rochester or Duluth airports.
Super Bowl Sunday will be the busiest day of the week, with up to 700 planes parked between Flying Cloud, Anoka County-Blaine and St. Paul Downtown Airport. Nearly two-thirds of planes will try to leave right after the game, Harris said. That will require a precise schedule.
The NFL and the Federal Aviation Administration are still creating a computer system that takes plane reservations and creates slots for takeoffs and landings at every Twin Cities airport.
So far, the two fuel stations at St. Paul Downtown Airport have received a handful of calls about reservations, staff said.
Many pilots won’t make reservations until two weeks before the Super Bowl, when it’s clear which teams are playing. The competitors affect who shows up, where they’re coming from and whether they will fly or drive, Tachovsky said.
Long underwear and scarves
Airport gas stations, which also provide plane maintenance, catering and concierge services, are also prepping in other ways.
Tachovsky said Signature will fly in 100 employees from its other locations during Super Bowl week, dividing them between MSP and St. Paul Downtown Airport. Each worker will get long underwear and a scarf.
Signature will also bring in extra equipment like tugs and tow bars to move airplanes, chocks to hold planes’ wheels in place and ground power units to power-start airplanes. They’re buying two new $220,000 fuel trucks to add to the pair they own already. Each holds 5,000 gallons of gas.
Some preparations are festive rather than functional. Signature staff plan to transform a hangar into a crew lounge and throw a Super Bowl party there, Tachovsky said.
Quality catering at airports will be key to how people think about the experience, said Mike Wilson, a MAC reliever airport manager. “If catering is messed up, it’s not a successful event,” he said.
Harris said Super Bowl planning has brought staff at regional airports together, opening new lines of communication. “We’re going to embrace it and we’re going to have fun,” he said. “We’ll rise to the challenge.”