Resort officials put FAA in hot seat over Aspen airport woes |

Resort officials put FAA in hot seat over Aspen airport woes

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Rustin Gudim The Aspen Times

ASPEN – The Federal Aviation Administration is “dumbing down” the newly installed navigational equipment atop Aspen Mountain in an effort to get it to function reliably, said an agency spokesman who found himself in the hot seat Thursday in Aspen.

Bob Kitson, FAA regional director, explained the agency’s latest approach to making the equipment work, hopefully by Saturday night, to a group of elected and resort officials, as well as airport and airline representatives, during a hastily arranged meeting at City Hall.

With the start of the ski season next week and the ramping up of air travel into Aspen shortly after that, resort officials repeatedly tried to impress the seriousness of the situation upon Kitson.

“Without the airport, we’re darn near out of business. It’s a disaster,” said Warren Klug, local hotel operator and chairman of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors.

Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman predicted “drastic economic implications” if the problems continue into the ski season.

“I’d love to hear something from you that makes me feel comfortable we’re going to be all right in a few days,” said David Perry, senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co.

The navigational equipment has shut down twice since its four-week installation was completed Nov. 6. Most recently, it turned off automatically on Wednesday when the system detected a drop in power. The FAA crew isn’t sure why, but has been checking every cable and connection in the system, Kitson said.

It’s ready to return to operation now, he said, but with clear weather forecast through Saturday, technicians have tackled a reconfiguration of the system. The plan is to convert a 14-antenna array into a six-antenna system that Kitson said will be more tolerant and simpler to maintain. It will be tested today and Saturday, with the intention of having it operational by Saturday night.

“What we are doing, really, is dumbing down the antenna array,” he said.

Asked what Plan B might be, if the latest approach doesn’t work, Kitson said: “That is a plan I do not have.

“This is not beyond the realm of our capabilities,” he said. “I’m not at the point where I’m doubting we can make this work.”

The antenna array is one of two that guides pilots on approach to the airport when they must fly on instruments because visibility is poor. One guides them in a straight path onto the runway and the other – the one on the mountain – generates a “line in space” that pilots follow if they miss their approach and must circle back for another try, Kitson explained.

The Aspen airport is the only one in the country that has a localizer-type directional aid for a missed approach, he said. Other airports only have the LDA, as it’s called, to guide them onto the runway. The mountaintop LDA guides pilots safety out through the mountainous terrain if they must circle around.

The FAA has its top engineers and technicians at work on the system, according to Kitson.

“We are bringing everything the FAA has to offer into it,” he said.

What was a $1.5 million project is now closer to a $2 million job, Kitson estimated. SkyWest Airlines officials at the table couldn’t say how much the localizer issue has cost the airline, but termed it “a lot.”

Since the old equipment was shut down and dismantled, starting Oct. 8, the airline, which operates United Express flights between Denver and Aspen, has diverted or canceled flights when poor visibility does not allow them to fly into Aspen. Passengers are being bused from Grand Junction and Eagle when flights are diverted. In all, 105 flights and an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 passengers have been affected, said a SkyWest representative.

SkyWest aircraft have equipment on board that allows them to fly in should the localizer suddenly go out while a plane is on its final approach, but it has no backup to that system, which is why it cancels or diverts flights if the localizer is off-line, explained Capt. Shane Losee.

Frontier, currently flying one flight a day in and out of Aspen, has been unaffected by the localizer repairs. GPS equipment on board is the airline’s backup, according to airport officials.

In early December, air service into Aspen jumps from seven to as many as 13 flights a day, said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass. Starting Dec. 16, as many as 22 commercial flights a day are scheduled. The magnitude of the problem will increase exponentially at that point, he said.

“What I’m most worried about is a loss of confidence among the flying public,” Perry said.

“It’s just a black eye for all of Colorado, frankly. Not just us,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards.

Officials pressed the FAA to do a better job of communicating what’s happening with the system to the public, and Richards urged the agency to keep a team of technicians in Aspen through Jan. 1 just in case problems continue.

The FAA intends to maintain a crew of three in Aspen through Nov. 30, and longer if necessary, said Kevin Zirger, FAA technical operations manager for the Western Slope.

Mayor Mick Ireland suggested the Skico would probably provide a ski pass to keep a technician right on the mountain.

“We’d do that and more … but the technician would have to be chained to the array,” Perry said.