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Alex Choi has a simple way to describe what he and his 10-member operations team do at the Minot International Airport.
“I call us the housekeeper of the airfield,” said Choi, who was promoted to operations foreman in March. “The public doesn’t always know we exist. When I tell someone that we inspect the airfield, they ask if we do the de-icing because that’s what they see people doing outside. A lot of what we do isn’t visible.”
The list of duties Choi and his co-workers are responsible for is long:
There are more responsibilities, of course, but this list is a portion of the things Choi and his crews do every day, much of it away from the public eye.
“We do daily inspections in the daytime and at night because you’re looking for different things,” Choi said. “We’re constantly patrolling the airfield for wildlife, checking lights, signs, markings, and the pavement itself. And then we’re making repairs when we find things that need to be fixed.”
Choi began working at the airport in 2015 as an operations technician, and was promoted to operations foreman in March. The transition has been eye-opening, to say the least.
“There is a lot to learn, but there are a lot of things that our former boss taught us,” Choi said. “Before taking this position I’d ask ‘Why can’t we fix this?’ or ‘Why can’t we buy that?’ Now I know why, and I understand better that you always have to be mindful of your budget and your priorities.”
Choi said he didn’t have experience as a supervisor, so that’s been one of the biggest challenges, along with dealing with a wide variety of issues, including legal discussions and FAA rules. Since he became foreman, he’s changed the schedule that had been in place for years. Instead of working a slightly different schedule for five days a week, employees now work the same four 10-hour shifts for a month before rotating to a new shift.
“Nighttime and daytime responsibilities are completely different, so you don’t want one person working just nights or days,” said Choi, whose department covers the airport 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Everyone needs to stay up to speed on all the shifts, so this new schedule provides a little more stability.”
The operations crew has spent a lot of time lately making sure all the equipment needed for snow removal is ready to go.
“Yes, sir. If it snowed tomorrow, we’re ready to go,” Choi said in early November. “Well, I guess we’d be 95 percent ready because we have one plow undergoing maintenance that we’re waiting for parts for. But we’re ready.”
The snow removal equipment building is organized, neat, and clean, something the entire staff takes pride in, Choi said.
“Our thinking is that if we keep the machinery clean, it will last longer,” he said. “We’re trying to extend the lifetime of our equipment as long as possible with routine maintenance.”
Choi has dealt with winter weather in previous years, but this will be the first winter with the added responsibilities of being the foreman.
“Plus, in the last six months or so, we’ve lost a few employees to retirement, so we have some new people who haven’t dealt with a winter yet,” he added. “It will be a learning experience for all of us.”
Choi’s employees are not responsible for de-icing the planes; that task is contracted out by the airlines. Snow removal is their most visible job, but it’s far from the only thing the operation staff does on a daily basis. Take, for instance, keeping grass and weeds under control on the airport’s approximately 1,600 acres.
Choi’s crew mows all the safety areas, and contracts with local farmers to come onto the airfield and cut the rest of the grass for hay.
“It was such a dry year, so there wasn’t much mowing. Normally, it’s about a once-a-week thing, and you can almost start over as soon as you’re done,” Choi said.
Then there’s the array of critters who try to make their home on the airfield’s roughly 1,600 acres, all of which are not wanted near an airport. All sorts of birds, deer, the occasional coyote, and gophers are at the top of the list of unwelcome visitors.
“We’ve worked with biologists to help us determine what attracts wildlife, like trees, bodies of water, etc. Those things become habitat for birds and other animals we don’t want on the airfield,” Choi said. “Wildlife is a dangerous thing for us. We try to remove habitat and we harass them so they move on. Gophers are a major issue for us. We use different methods, but it’s never-ending.”
Just like everything else done by the operations crew – never-ending.
“There are a lot of things that we do every day that no one really notices, but everything we do is important because it’s all related to safety,” Choi said. “That’s what makes this job so interesting. It’s what we do.”