Pilots rely on NOTAMs.
Runway closures, navaid outages, contaminated surfaces, poor braking action; these are all potential hazards that could affect the safety at an airport. Some hazards are predictable and some happen at the last minute. Either way, airports need to let pilots know about them. Pilots rely on an alerting system called Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), which allows airports to inform them of these type of hazardous situations. It's a requirement that pilots read NOTAMs before every flight. But... what happens if airports aren't reporting?
When you think of a large towered airport, like Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport, one can assume it is constantly being monitored. Someone is there watching the condition of the runways around the clock, ensuring the appropriate crews are dispatched if snow removal is needed, and NOTAMs are being reported. What about the small airports, the ones that don't have a Fixed Base Operator (FBO), or line service workers to greet you. You know, those where you have to pump your own fuel. Who is reporting the conditions at those airports?
All airports have an assigned airport manager. Some airport manager's jobs are to be just that; an airport manager. Their responsibilities are strictly to look after an airport and they typically have an aviation background. However, managers at some smaller airports have other, sometimes multiple other job duties within their city. It's possible that when they took their job, they didn't know they were also going to be an airport manager. It was another responsibility added onto their long lists of tasks. These type of airport managers might not be pilots, or have had any familiarity with aviation before being assigned this new job title. Don't get me wrong, these folks work long and hard hours for their city. Yet, the bottom line is, their focus is divided and it's impossible to put 100% of their time on the airport.
That could affect safety!
That said, what happens when an ice storm hits and the airport manager is in another part of the city focusing on down trees that are blocking a street? They probably aren't thinking about reporting poor runway conditions through the NOTAM system. This is a problem for pilots. Before every flight, pilots go into data collection mode to make an informed go/no-go decision. If there is no data provided to them about the airport they are flying to, they are being denied very important information that could affect (their) safety. A piece of information, such as poor braking action from an ice storm, could potentially change the outcome of a flight.
Knowing the actual runway conditions without a NOTAM is a challenge because pilots might not get a good look at the runway until seconds before touch down. Night and low visibility conditions will decrease that amount of time even further. Sometimes just looking at a runway can't provide the information needed about whether it's safe to land or not. Not being provided this information through a NOTAM, some pilots might even assume the runway condition is good. Maybe they'll think the airport manager has already removed any contaminants from the ice storm. Bad assumption!
Another problem is that some of these NOTAMs only last for a few hours and have to be reinstated, even if conditions don't change. And even if an airport manager has time to report the conditions the first time around, will they continue to update the NOTAM?
What can pilots do?
So, you ask, what can pilots do about this? There are a few things you can do to find out what the actual conditions are at every airport you fly to; no matter how large or small, or how well monitored it is. The first thing is, if no NOTAMs are reported, don't assume conditions are good! Call and ask about the field conditions. For every airport listed in the FAA Chart Supplement (aka: Airport Facility Directory), there is a phone number listed for the airport manager. If you can't get in touch with the airport manager, call the local law enforcement.
Have a phone call be a part of your pre-flight data collection. That way you can get someone to physically go out to the airport and provide you with real time information. If you don't speak with someone, you also might not know until it's too late that the fuel system is not operating. This is relevant information, especially if you are only able to bring enough fuel to get to your destination and not back home. If there is no NOTAM, a quick phone call could prevent you from being stuck!
In addition to your destination airport's NOTAMs, look at what the surrounding airports are reporting. Those airport managers might have been out looking at their airport more recently and could be reporting current information. It's likely that the airport you're going to will have similar surface conditions.
Another tool that can be helpful is on the FAA NOTAM search website*. There is a dropdown menu option that allows you to do an archive search for past NOTAMs. It will display NOTAMs that were previously active and have expired. This tool can help you review trending information about a specific airport.
Every flight has its risks, but here in the Midwest winter weather conditions can significantly increase the risk level. Most pilots have some sort of process to assess risks during the planning phase of their flight, and decide if the risk level is acceptable to fly. However, if pilots are not able to assess all risks associated with a flight due to lack of information, they could unintentionally make a poor decision and fly when it is not safe! If there are no NOTAMs reported at an airport remember, it does not necessarily mean that conditions are good. In the absence of current NOTAMs it might be a good idea to call the airport ahead of your flight and make safety your first priority!