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Commercial service disrupted at Aspen airport after unannounced FAA maintenance

More than 30 flights canceled when clouds roll in and navigation tool disabled; work scheduled to go until Monday

Private planes line up for take off on the tarmac of the Aspen/Pitkin County airport as storm clouds hang low over the surrounding mountains on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Commercial flights resumed about 1 p.m. Thursday. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Commercial airline traffic into and out of the Aspen airport resumed early Thursday afternoon after service was abruptly halted Wednesday when the Federal Aviation Administration took down a regional navigational aid for maintenance with no notice to local authorities, sources said Thursday.

Zero scheduled flights from United and American airlines were able to land in Aspen on Tuesday night, all day Wednesday, and Thursday morning; all were canceled or diverted to other airports. The commercial schedule resumed Thursday when an American Airlines flight from Dallas landed just before 1 p.m.; it was scheduled to be the first outbound flight about 45 minutes later when it returned to Dallas.

The commercial service was shut down Tuesday night through Thursday morning because airline rules stipulate that the navigational aid must be operational to fly into Aspen under low cloud ceilings, said Dan Bartholomew, airport director.



“We weren’t notified of this,” he said Thursday morning. “The FAA had it as scheduled maintenance. My guess is they thought the weather wouldn’t turn the way it did. It did so, and they were kind of stuck.”

The navigational aid on Red Table Mountain near Basalt was first disabled Tuesday night, said Bill Tomcich, a local airline consultant. A total of 34 commercial flights from American and United airlines were canceled or delayed between Tuesday night and Thursday morning, he said.




An FAA notice posted online Thursday states that the maintenance will last from Thursday to Nov. 17, and that the departure navigation aid would be unavailable for departing aircraft without an “RNAV System with GPS.”

Bartholomew, however, said he’s been told by the FAA that the navigational aid will be returned to service by Monday, and that the end date for the FAA note is not the same as the end date for the maintenance.

An email sent to the FAA seeking comment Thursday morning was acknowledged though no answers about the maintenance procedure were provided by Thursday evening.

The navigational aid is only necessary in inclement weather situations and would not have been a problem if there were clear skies over Aspen, Bartholomew said. When the weather turned, SkyWest Airlines, which operates flights into Aspen for both American and United, required the navigational aid to be working in order to land in Aspen, he said.

Instrument landings in such situations would have been acceptable if the navigational aid had been working. Private airplanes were not affected unless they were operating under similar flight rules.

“All we heard from (the FAA) is they’re rewiring something,” Bartholomew said. “We’re not privy to the details.”

The storms earlier this week had been forecast for days in advance.

“It’s horrible timing,” Tomcich said. “It’s very unfortunate.”


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