Jet traffic clogs airport
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights bound for Aspen for several hours on Saturday and Sunday, after the local air traffic control system was crippled by overwhelming demand for landing and takeoff slots.
More than 27 commercial flights in and out of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport were canceled, causing delays and rescheduling for about 2,500 people on one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. United Express, Aspen’s primary commercial carrier, ended up busing more than 800 customers between Aspen and Denver.
“Rescheduling people was almost impossible,” said United Express manager Rick Schmidt. “We had to reschedule over the holiday weekend when nearly every flight was already full, and on top of it all, Chicago was closed [due to weather]. It was nearly impossible.”
At one point Sunday afternoon, 114 planes were waiting for permission to take off from Aspen. On Saturday, the waiting list stretched to 81 aircraft. Airport Director of Aviation Scott Smith said the wait to take off and land was, at times, more than two hours long.
Because the FAA allows no priority for commercial operations, Northwest Airlink and United Express flights were stuck waiting in line behind private jets.
The FAA’s order forced Aspen-bound planes that had yet to take off to remain on the ground while local air traffic controllers dealt with the mess.
But local aviation officials are placing much of the blame for the weekend’s mess on the FAA itself, because two days earlier it rejected a recommendation to limit flights into Aspen starting early Saturday morning.
Smith said airport administrators met Thursday and, based on flight plans and historical demand, recommended that beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, the number of incoming flights to Aspen be cut sharply, to eight per hour. The FAA’s flow control office, in Washington, D.C., agreed to limits of about 12 planes an hour.
With 57 jets parked for the night, as local officials had predicted, the airport was already full by the end of the day Friday. On Saturday morning, private jets continued to land at a steady pace, but the number of departures was lower than normal that morning, with many delaying takeoff until early afternoon.
“We had jets arriving at 7:30 a.m. that didn’t leave until 2 p.m.,” Smith said. “We were stashing them in every nook and cranny available.”
At 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Smith called the tower and said the airport couldn’t accommodate any more airplanes. Between 30 and 60 minutes later the FAA acted, but for many it was too late.
“We were told that there were so many private planes in Aspen that the airport’s airspace was filled up,” said Glenwood resident Martha Cochran, whose 12:40 p.m. United Express flight from Denver to Aspen was canceled.
At about 4 p.m., a fleet of buses chartered by United Express arrived at Denver International Airport to bring Cochran and other passengers to Aspen. Cochran said she and her daughter didn’t get into Aspen until about 9:30 p.m.
On Saturday, United Express was forced to cancel 10 of 18 flights going from Denver to Aspen and eight of 17 from Aspen to Denver. On Sunday, the airline canceled nine of 15 flights from Denver and 10 of 16 from Aspen.
United Express manager Schmidt said the airline was hit hard by the grounding – none of its losses will be covered. “These are all lost revenues,” he said.
Smith said another cause of the backup may have been the newest trend in general aviation – timeshare jets.
Privately owned planes of all kinds, corporate jets and charter planes have been part of the general aviation scene for years, but an increasing number of the new jets on the tarmac are owned by several people. Jointly owned jets are operated much like timeshare condominiums, with coordinated scheduling, maintenance and billing for each group of owners.
Smith said one company that manages several “fractional-ownership” jets requested 32 landing and takeoff slots on Saturday. This is the first year such jets have had major effects on airport operations, he said.
Timeshares and bottlenecks aside, Smith said the heart of the problem lies with managing the traffic coming into Aspen. A task force made up of representatives from the airport, the airlines and the FAA will begin meeting next week to look into the problem.
“This was an air traffic-control problem,” Smith said. “We know what our capacity is here, we know when it’s full. The FAA needs to get a better handle on what this airport can handle.”
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