FAA explains Aspen’s winter airport problems
Two officials from the Federal Aviation Administration told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday the reasons behind two significant incidents of flight delays and cancellations at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport this winter.
One of those occurred Dec. 26, when passengers waited for hours in the boarding area and aboard airplanes, security lines were so long they stretched outside and eight passengers slept overnight at the airport. Factors for the problems included a lack of Transportation Security Administration workers, aircraft mechanical issues and weather-induced delays at major hub airports throughout the country.
An issue that came out of that situation were passenger complaints that private planes were allowed to depart and land more frequently than commercial jets.
“This is the busiest day of the year,” traveler David Aggy told The Aspen Times after being delayed three hours that day. “I get it. But what people couldn’t understand was private plane after private plane” coming in an out of the airport.
Commissioner Steve Child echoed those sentiments Tuesday when he told Greg Dyer, the FAA’s assistant district manager for the Rocky Mountain District, that private planes should have to make reservations to land “just like commercial flights.”
“It’s terribly unfair that commercial passengers have to suffer for the benefit of people on private aircraft,” Child said.
Dyer, however, said departures and arrivals by both commercial and private planes are handled on a “rolling, first-come, first-serve basis.”
“You get in line and you get your turn,” Dyer said.
From the late 1980s until just a few years ago, the FAA did have a reservation system, he said. And while it had its merits — like utilizing less busy times at the airport — “there were a lot of problems with it,” he said.
“It was widely disliked,” Dyer said. “It was difficult to enforce. It created chaos.”
Dave Conley, the FAA’s air traffic manager at the Aspen airport, said that many private planes have to divert to a different airport on peak days in Aspen.
The other significant incident occurred in February, when a combination of high winds and faulty readings from a localizer on Aspen Mountain led to the cancellation of several afternoon flights. The situation was further compounded by the rockslide in Glenwood Canyon, which left stranded travelers an eight-hour trip to Aspen or Denver.
The localizer is a device that allows pilots to land in bad weather using instruments.
As it turned out, the localizer did not fail, Dyer said. It was not working properly or providing accurate information because it had been calibrated using information gathered during the summer, he said. Winter conditions are far more reflective because of snow, which threw off the device, Dyer said.
“It was devastating to the community when the localizer went down,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “And we hear about it.”
While a new generation of navigational aids is being developed, they will provide only incremental improvements in Aspen, Dyer said. That’s because Aspen’s airport is difficult to operate because of its location close to town, close to numerous mountain peaks and close to ski areas as well as its lone runway, he said.
“The capacity will always be limited,” Conley said. “The mountains create a box canyon affect.”
However, the system currently in place is solid, and pilots have a lot of confidence in it, Dyer said.
“It’s safe and they trust it,” he said.
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