FAA: Pilots, Aspen tower notified of maintenance that caused 49 flight disruptions | AspenTimes.com

FAA: Pilots, Aspen tower notified of maintenance that caused 49 flight disruptions

Pitkin County officials want better communication for future federal projects; navigational aid that canceled commercial flights back up

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. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Federal Aviation Administration notified chief pilots at commercial airlines and Aspen air traffic control before taking down a navigational aid last week essential for commercial airlines to fly in bad weather, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

In addition, the FAA told pilots the navigational aid on Red Table Mountain near Basalt would be taken offline for maintenance through a public “Notice to Airmen,” said Kiiva Williams, a spokeswoman who responded Wednesday by email to questions sent from The Aspen Times to the agency Sept. 30.

“The FAA must schedule and coordinate NAVAID maintenance well in advance,” Williams said. “Weather forecasts may be unavailable or unreliable.”

The aid was taken offline for scheduled maintenance beginning the night of Sept. 28, just as a rain and snowstorm settled over the Roaring Fork Valley. Commercial airlines must be able to use the navigational aid when the cloud ceiling is below 6,000 feet, which prohibited all commercial flights from landing in Aspen the night of Sept. 28, all day Sept. 29 and the morning of Sept. 30 when the weather cleared.

Flights on Friday and Saturday also were affected, said Bill Tomcich, a local airline travel consultant.

“So last week, a grand total of 49 commercial flights were disrupted, with 15 inbound canceled plus 10 diverted to (Grand Junction) or (Denver),” Tomcich said Wednesday in an email to the Times. “Plus a total of 24 outbound flights were canceled during last week’s weather events combined with the (navigational aid) outage.”

Dan Bartholomew, Aspen airport director, confirmed Wednesday that Aspen air traffic control did know about the scheduled maintenance to the navigational aid. However, air traffic control does not know what commercial airlines need for navigation.

“They wouldn’t necessarily know who it would impact and who it wouldn’t impact,” Bartholomew said.

And while chief airline pilots — the sort-of generals for pilots at each airline — and the notice to airmen were issued, they apparently weren’t enough to get the message across to American and United airlines, which had to cancel or divert scores of flights, he said.

“It did seem to take the airlines by surprise,” Bartholomew said.

The Aspen airport administration also was taken by surprise when the navigational aid went offline, he has said. Local airport officials knew nothing about the maintenance.

The issue, however, appears to have been fixed Wednesday, Bartholomew said. The FAA told him the important part of the navigational aid that allows commercial airlines to fly in and out of Aspen’s airport went back online Wednesday.

The agency will conduct a flight check of the system Thursday, and the entire navigational aid will be back online Friday, Bartholomew said.

“The FAA operates under pretty scripted policies and procedures,” he said. “Honestly, the FAA does its best when it can accommodate (local interests). They’re getting better and better all the time.”

That may be, but the agency has a history in Pitkin County of “these types of communication issues that have gone back several years,” Jon Peacock, county manager, said Tuesday at the Pitkin County Commissioners’ regular weekly work session.

Board Chairwoman Kelly McNicholas Kury brought up the navigational aid issue in hopes that county staff could reach out to the FAA “so we’re not taken aback like we were last week with their repairs.”

“Gosh, I was just thinking that I got married Oct. 2 — six years ago — and our wedding would have really been impacted, and I can relate to people who ran into these unforeseen and unplanned delays,” McNicholas Kury said. “We owe it to the community to suss that out so we’re not taken by surprise again.”

Peacock also sympathized with people whose events were marred by the travel delays and said he heard from some people who were told by airlines it was the county that took down the navigational aid.

“I heard from a number of folks who had weddings or events planned this weekend, which turned out to be a beautiful weekend for it, who were understandably stressed out,” he said. “And having been told it was us who turned (the aid) off, (they asked) why couldn’t we turn it back on?”

He said he supported sending a letter to the FAA supporting regular maintenance on equipment but urging better communication in the future.

“I think the drop was the lack of communication — and it wasn’t just Aspen affected by this,” Peacock said. “It was multiple airports and airlines.”

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