Repairs continue to affect flights into Aspen
October 14, 2010
ASPEN – Repairs to navigational equipment that serves the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport forced the cancellation of three more commercial flights Tuesday, and more are possible before the system is again operational, according to Aviation Director Jim Elwood.
He briefed Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday on the repairs, which caught airport officials and the airlines off guard. The airport learned Oct. 6 that the Federal Aviation Administration would shut down the equipment, located atop Aspen Mountain, on Friday, Oct. 8. The airlines initially believed the work would not interrupt operations, Elwood said, but passengers endured delays and cancellations last weekend and again on Tuesday, when cloud cover prevented visual approaches to the airport.
Wednesday’s clear skies were expected to continue through Friday, but partly cloudy skies are back in the forecast for the coming weekend, and the FAA has said it may take until Oct. 22 to complete the repairs. The agency has scheduled an aircraft to flight test the system on Oct. 20, according to Elwood.
“Why are we talking about 10 days?” said Commissioner Michael Owsley. “It defies imagination that you’d have 10 days worth of delay.”
The FAA is rebuilding a platform on top of Aspen Mountain and replacing the localizer directional aid, or LDA – an antenna array – that sits on the platform. The LDA works in tandem with another one located at the south end of the airport runway; pilots depend on the LDA signal from the mountaintop equipment in the event of a missed approach, when they must circle back around for another attempt, Elwood explained.
Without the equipment, used for instrument approaches, adequate visibility is necessary, and even partly cloudy skies can be problematic, he said. Tuesday’s scattered cloud cover at 5,500 feet was enough to prevent three scheduled flights from landing.
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The short notice from the FAA last week left the airport “in kind of a lurch,” Elwood told the commissioners. He promised an “extensive debriefing” with the agency after the repairs are made so the airport and airlines can be better prepared for such events in the future.
“This issue kind of came to us quickly,” he said. “The airlines are trying to adapt as quickly as they can.”
Frontier, currently flying once daily between Aspen and Denver, has been unaffected by the equipment shutdown, Elwood said. The Q400 aircraft flown by the airline has additional navigational equipment on board that allows it to fly without the LDA on the mountain.
United Express offers six connections daily to Aspen, flown by SkyWest Airlines, and some of them have been affected. Though the equipment is used on approach to the airport, it can affect outbound flights, as well. The final two United flights to arrive each day provide the planes for the first flights out the following morning, so the morning departures are canceled if those planes don’t arrive, Elwood said.
“People need to be aware, if they absolutely need to be somewhere, they should consider their alternatives,” he said.