Plane passengers stranded by glitch
March 21, 2002
A few hundred skiers and other folks bound for Aspen had to spend the night in Denver Wednesday after a computer glitch grounded their planes.
United Express was forced to cancel three flights out of Denver after airline officials discovered a problem with the cockpit computer systems on three planes. One flight from Aspen to Denver was also canceled.
Passengers on the affected flights – the 6:30, 7:40 and 8:45 p.m. flights from Denver and the 8:30 p.m. flight from Aspen – were put up for the night and flown to their destinations yesterday morning, said Chris McLaughlin, who manages United Express operations in Aspen.
United Express had to fly two mostly empty planes up from Denver early yesterday morning in order to ensure that the first two flights from Aspen to Denver left on time. The need to “deadhead” planes to Aspen forced a 27-minute delay of the morning Ski Plane from Denver.
At least some of the affected passengers unloading yesterday morning were under the impression that a power outage at Sardy Field caused the groundings. An FAA spokesman said the tower crew in Aspen has no record of a power outage on Wednesday that affected airport operations.
United Express ground operations crews in Denver told McLaughlin that the announcements in the concourse Wednesday night informed passengers that the problem was related to the computer systems.
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“I heard that rumor about the power outage this morning and I just sank,” McLaughlin said. “Contrary to public perceptions, we try to give our customers the most accurate information we can.”
A local cab driver also heard that the reason for the delay had to do with paperwork that United Express failed to file with the Federal Aviation Administration.
McLaughlin said the disruption was actually caused by corrupt data on a set of CD-ROM computer disks that contain global positioning data specific to the approach into Aspen. The information is necessary for setting the nighttime approach to Sardy Field.
The cockpit computers could not read the disks when they were loaded yesterday, which forced the airline to suspend operations for the three planes in Denver and one in Aspen until new disks could be obtained from the producer in Texas.
Cliff Runge, longtime local pilot and owner of Aspen Aviation, said the information on the disks is required to get into Aspen at night. They are updated numerous times a year, and everyone with nighttime clearance is required to purchase and install them.
“They had a problem, they found it, they stopped the airplanes from flying – which is the way it works,” Runge said. “It sounds like United Express followed procedures perfectly.”
McLaughlin said United Express was hoping to have new copies of the disks installed yesterday afternoon, which would allow for normal operations to resume. If the disks didn’t show up in time, the airline planned to offer customers a choice – fly directly to Grand Junction and take a bus to Aspen, or stay the night in Denver and fly up in the morning.
“Hopefully, we won’t have to use that contingency plan,” McLaughlin said. He said there is little doubt that things will be back to normal today.