A mother and daughter from Little Rock, Ark., recently spent the better part of their first gondola ride in Aspen complaining about the trouble they had getting into town the day after Christmas.But it's not your classic tale of Christmas travel woe. These women, who would not divulge their names, weren't licking wounds from the chaos at Denver International Airport.Their problem was landing the family's private jet in Aspen, where a lot of people who are used to getting everything are being denied landing slots at Sardy Field. It seems their family pilot was unable to secure a landing slot for Dec. 26 via the reservation system, forcing the family to fly here and circle Aspen for an hour and half before air traffic controllers let them land.One family acquaintance was forced to divert his private jet to Grand Junction after nearly running out of fuel while circling the area."You locals should do something about it," the mother and daughter said on multiple occasions during the 14-minute ride up the Silver Queen Gondola.The problem is, at peak times of the year there are more planes trying to fly into the Aspen airport than the runway can handle. "If you've bought your Gulfstream V and you want to bring your family for Christmas - those people aren't used being told 'no,'" said Greg Dyer, support manager for airspace and procedures with the Federal Aviation Administration in Denver. "The person who doesn't get to go is the one who is going to say it's unfair," he said.
Evidently, there are more than a few who are saying the system is unfair. "We heard [Tuesday] that there was airspace saturation that caused diversions," said Chad Farischon, general manager at Trajen FBO Network, the firm that caters to private jets at Sardy Field. "In general, it's been hard for everyone."Playing the slotsWhether it's for a football game, the Olympics or the holiday season in the mountains, any airport can reach a point where there are more planes wanting to land than the facility can handle. When that happens, the FAA kicks into place the Special Traffic Management Program. In Aspen, that runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 4; Feb. 16 to 21, and March 15 to April 4. The Special Traffic Management Program is a reservation system that creates time slots in which an airplanes can land or take off. Commercial airlines get special priority, with published flight times automatically taking slots.Beyond that, it's first come, first served. "It's kind of like the honor system," Dyer said. "It's not like we have a policeman waiting. It depends on the integrity of the people using the system."Certain companies, however, may be getting a jump on the system because they use computer programs to make reservations.Larger private jet companies, such as NetJets, offer fractional purchase of a jet that is added to their fleet. The buyer is able to use a jet in the fleet on very short notice. Buying into a NetJets one-sixteenth interest, with 50 hours of flying time (in a Hawker 400XP, a seven-seat executive jet), starts at roughly $400,000.
Companies such as NetJets, known as fractionals, have made it increasingly difficult for the private, jet-owning citizen to secure a landing slot. "You have so much demand on the system for these slots," Dyer said. "There are some companies, I don't know what they use, but they're pretty aggressive at trying to get slots." At Sardy Field on Wednesday, a pilot who flies for a private jet company said, "There are people [at his firm] whose job it is to get slots."The pilot and another, who did not want their names used, said employees at their company reserve slots and then use and trade them as necessary. For instance, the pilots were originally slated to land Wednesday, but plans changed, and they used a slot their company had reserved for Tuesday. Fractionals and fairnessThe fractional jet ownership companies, however, may just be a scapegoat. "The fractionals are deemed to be evil by a lot," Dyer said. "They're a user. They have people in them. From an FAA perspective they should have fair access to the system like anyone else."Dyer also said there is no traction to a rumor that fractionals can snatch up every slot and just sit on them.
"We had one situation a couple of years ago where we had a disgruntled user who figured out a way to hit the system hard," Dyer said. "He got 83 slots between Aspen, Eagle and Rifle. We noticed that, so we just canceled them. We do watch that. There is some logic in the system for how soon there can be another reservation. There is some analysis there, and some monitoring to try to keep it reasonable."It is possible, however, to land without a slot. Sometimes people cancel slots, sometimes they go unused, and so planes sometimes circle, waiting to get in."They'll flight-plan for Grand Junction, which does not have a slot program," said Jim Elwood, Aspen airport director. "They'll fly over here, hope the weather is good. Sometimes the answer is 'yes,' sometimes it is 'no.' If there simply aren't slots available when the person wants to come to Aspen, then they'll land in Grand Junction, Rifle, or the front range and drive a car up."Elwood said he feels the FAA does an equitable job of handling the problem. A spokesperson for the National Business Aviation Association, Dan Hubbard, was also complimentary of the FAA. "There was a time when there was no reservation system," he said. "That wasn't really workable at all. We wanted them to have a system that is fair."Fairness aside, the bottom line for the FAA is keeping the runway busy. So long as plenty of planes are getting in and out on the single runway, with the minimum of dead time, it is happy. "We don't care who it is as long as it's busy," Dyer said. "We are always trying to do it better. We don't want to get in the business of artificially limiting capacity. Our goal is to use every bit of capacity that's there. It's just tough when you have one runway in high mountains. It would be different if there were capacity that was going unused."Joel Stonington's e-mail address is email@example.com