Aspen airport director: Getting info to pilots key to alleviating congestion

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

There is no magic solution for preventing the airway and runway congestion that led to many problems for commercial flights trying to get into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Saturday afternoon, Director of Aviation John Kinney said Tuesday.

However, Kinney said getting information to private-jet operators and pilots about the peak days for commercial flights might help in the future.

“If we know we’re going to have really busy days, we need to let everyone know about them,” he said. “The Aspen airport has capacity limitations.”

Kinney, who has been at the helm of the airport for about two weeks, participated in more than six hours of meetings with airport stakeholders Tuesday to address the issue. Representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic controllers, the three airlines serving the airport, Aspen Skiing Co. and the airport’s fixed-based operator that manages private aircraft were involved.

Their goal was to identify the problems that arose Saturday and discuss possible scenarios for avoiding a repeat situation. Thirty-four commercial flights were scheduled to fly into the local airport Saturday when the weather was clear and stable, and an identical number will be flying into Aspen this Saturday.

A large number of private jets trying to leave Aspen at one time — ahead of darkness and another snowstorm that arrived early Sunday — was the primary cause of the problem, Kinney said. But there were numerous other factors involved, including bad weather prior to Saturday, which prevented many private aircraft from leaving ahead of the weekend.

“It was rush hour in the sky, not unlike rush hour on Highway 82,” Kinney said. “We’ve started the dialogue. One of the things we’re exploring is that if we know we’re going to have very busy days — eight to 10 times a year, or whatever the number is — let’s communicate to all of the users what our capacities are.”

He said Aspen’s airport, which has a single runway with incoming flights descending from the west and departing flights ascending to the west, was simply overloaded. For safety reasons, FAA air-traffic controllers try to maintain a certain distance between aircraft flying into and out of the airport, which means that on busy days, numerous planes can be placed in a holding pattern or diverted to other airports.

The airport once had a “slot system” that required private-jet operators to reserve a window of time for departing the airport, Kinney said. But because of numerous inefficiencies — pilots were “gaming the system” by reserving several different times throughout the day — that system was scrapped.

Since Sunday, commercial passengers have complained of many issues that arose Saturday afternoon, mostly delays. One United Airlines flight was stuck in the air for hours after departing Denver, only to be forced to return to Denver because the plane was running low on fuel. The Denver-to-Aspen connecting flight is only supposed to take 45 minutes.

Bill Tomcich, president of reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass and a local liaison to the airline industry, also was present during Tuesday’s discussions. He described them as productive.

Tomcich said Saturday represented one of the busiest days in the history of the airport, with 312 aircraft flying into or out of Aspen. Eighty-five percent of that volume was represented by general aviation, or private aircraft, Kinney said.

The belief among many commercial passengers that the FAA gives priority to private jets over commercial flights is a complete myth, Tomcich said. Air-traffic controllers only give favor to planes that need to land in emergency situations or for medical reasons involving a passenger, he said.

“One thing the Aspen FAA representative told us is that aircraft in the air will always have priority over aircraft on the ground because the ones in the air are burning fuel,” Tomcich said.

It’s highly likely that Saturday’s issues were an aberration, he said, with extreme holiday-season flight activity sandwiched between two storms. That’s unlikely to occur this weekend; the weather forecast is more favorable to air travel, Tomcich said.