Holiday overload `is a chronic condition’ |

Holiday overload `is a chronic condition’

Allyn Harvey

The Federal Aviation Administration disagrees with charges that its own reluctance to manage air traffic led to gridlock at Pitkin County Airport last weekend.

Spokesman Mitch Barker said the FAA’s “flow control office” in Washington, D.C., implemented limits on the number of aircraft flying into Aspen. However, the demand was so high it overwhelmed the system, he explained.

“It appears that this is a chronic condition,” said Barker. “It’s just too much demand. There isn’t much we can do about that.”

A large number of private jets trying to get in and out of Aspen, combined with a storm system that briefly shut down the airport, made for a nearly impossible situation, he said. The FAA does not give priority to airlines, so commercial flights filled with as many as 100 passengers waited in line behind private jets with just a few.

At one point on Sunday, the waiting list for clearance to take off was 114 planes long.

On both Saturday and Sunday, the FAA imposed a ground halt on all Aspen-bound planes. Aircraft not already in the air by midday were directed to stay on the ground until the backups were under control.

United Express, the primary commercial carrier between Denver and Aspen, was forced to cancel 29 flights over the weekend – 22 because of air traffic control problems, four because of bad weather and three because of mechanical problems. In all, nearly 2,500 passengers faced delays and rescheduling, according to United Express management in Aspen.

Northwest Airlink, which operates direct flights from Minneapolis and Detroit to Aspen, canceled one flight because of bad weather in the Midwest.

Barker said the FAA responded to requests from local officials to manage incoming flights. The administration’s flow control office agreed to limits of between 10 and 12 aircraft per hour – higher than the eight-per-hour limit requested by airport management.

The flow control office manages air traffic nationwide, Barker said, and bases its decisions on user demand, system capacity, and safety. There are, however, limits to its control over the system.

For instance, there is no way for the flow control office to manage aircraft that are using visual flight rules, which require pilots to base their decisions on what they can see out the window. Flow control only manages pilots using instrument flight rules, which apply mostly during inclement weather and to larger aircraft.

The weather in Aspen meant instrument flight rules were in effect throughout much of the weekend, giving the FAA more control over what was happening in the air. But it also meant takeoffs and landings took longer to execute.

Barker said a reservation system implemented on Saturday was overrun immediately, with more than 800 pilots seeking 42 landing slots at the airport.

Ground halts like the one that occurred last weekend do occur from time to time. “It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen,” Barker said. “The last time was in Las Vegas a few months ago, when there was a convention of business jet manufacturers.

Airport officials haven’t disputed the FAA’s contention that overwhelming demand from private jets was the cause of the weekend’s problems. They just weren’t as ready to say better air traffic management wouldn’t have alleviated at least some of the problems.

A task force made up of representatives from the airport, the airlines and the FAA is expected to look into what can be done to mitigate the growing demand at the airport. The next weekend that could pose similar problems is Presidents Day weekend, airport officials said.

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