Airport will halt landings to avoid holiday gridlock |

Airport will halt landings to avoid holiday gridlock

Allyn Harvey

Managers at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport learned yesterday that they can stop private aircraft from landing in Aspen if there isn’t enough room on the tarmac.

With Presidents Day weekend looming, it may be the only tool they have to avert the aviation hell that descended upon Aspen at the end of the Christmas holidays.

Airport administrators met Monday with local and regional managers from the Federal Aviation Administration, private plane owners and airline executives in response to the breakdown of airport operations on Jan. 2 and 3. Unusually high demand for takeoff and landing slots that weekend resulted in gridlock.

In all, 195 flights in and out of Aspen were either delayed or canceled over the weekend. At one point on Sunday afternoon, there were 35 planes awaiting clearance for takeoff from Sardy Field, according to airport records. United Airlines, the only commercial airline operating between Denver and Aspen, canceled 22 flights because of the backup.

“Everyone had their own version of what went wrong,” said County Commissioner Leslie Lamont, “but they all knew what the problem was.”

It became apparent during yesterday’s talks that as the situation became critical over New Year’s weekend, no one was sure what could be done until it was too late. After there was simply no more room for private planes, the FAA ordered all Aspen-bound traffic not yet in the air to remain on the ground.

“A lot of time at the meeting was spent talking about how everyone could communicate better,” said Lamont, who sat in on the discussions.

The meeting also focused on how to deal with the problem in the short term and solve it in the long term. In the short term, said Director of Aviation Scott Smith, airport management will halt incoming traffic if there is no room for private planes and other general aviation aircraft to park.

“We’re not going to let the traffic stack up to the point where the commercial carriers can’t get in,” he said.

But even though airport managers have influence over incoming flights, they can’t make people leave. One of the problems over New Year’s was a midday bottleneck that occurred because relatively few private planes left before 10 a.m.

FAA officials have therefore agreed to look into the logistics and financial costs of implementing a reservation system for both takeoffs and landings during the busiest days of the year. Airport officials will study the likely effects on both private and commercial users.

Smith said they hope to have a permanent solution in effect by next fall.

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