Technicians repair navigational aid at Aspen airport
August 23, 2011
ASPEN – Federal Aviation Administration technicians scrambled Monday to make repairs to a navigational aid at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport after problems forced the cancellation of two commercial flights Sunday evening.
Navigational lights known as the Precision Approach Path Indicator, or PAPI, which allows pilots to gauge their descent to the runway at night, went out of service. The FAA indicated problems with two circuit boards were to blame, according to Jim Elwood, airport director of aviation.
The FAA cannibalized the PAPI at the airport in Craig for replacement parts, he said. The repairs were completed Monday afternoon, in time to accommodate Monday night flights.
The agency also looked to the Craig system for spare parts last month, when a lightning strike short-circuited the Aspen airport’s PAPI, forcing the cancellation of incoming night flights for four days.
On Sunday, the final two inbound flights of the night on United Express, operated by SkyWest, were affected, according to airline spokesman Wes Horrocks.
SkyWest added an extra flight into Aspen on Monday morning, in addition to bringing in the two flights that were canceled Sunday evening, to accommodate travelers, Horrocks said.
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A different sort of equipment shutdown might affect some SkyWest operations starting next month.
Ongoing construction to lengthen the airport runway will require the relocation of a localizer at the south end of the runway. The navigational equipment will be off-line for an anticipated 45 days, starting Sept. 7. The localizer guides pilots using an instrument approach when cloud cover does not allow a visual approach.
When the FAA replaced a localizer located atop Aspen Mountain last fall, many difficulties delayed its return to service, and SkyWest had to cancel or divert dozens of flights whenever a visual approach into the airport wasn’t possible. Frontier flights were not affected.
That project, however, involved installing new, more sensitive equipment in difficult terrain and wintery weather. Getting the upgraded equipment to function properly proved a challenge, and it took more than a month to get the system installed and functioning dependably.
This fall’s localizer relocation on the ground at the airport is scheduled in advance and shouldn’t present the technological hurdles that plagued the mountaintop antenna array, according to Elwood.
The airport plans to get a jump on the localizer work, with the Federal Aviation Administration’s blessing, given the pending shutdown of the FAA on Sept. 16, when Congress’ current funding authorization for the agencies ends. Airport officials sought the FAA’s OK to move up the pouring of a foundation for both an equipment building and the antenna array itself before Sept. 16.
“We need to get done everything we possibly can before the 16th,” Elwood said.
The FAA, however, must handle the actual relocation of the localizer.
Though the impact on flights during the localizer shutdown is weather dependent, airport officials are hoping for a spate of dry, clear fall weather in September and early October to accommodate both flights and the paving work associated with the runway extension.
SkyWest, meanwhile, is prepared to fly passengers to either Eagle or Grand Junction when visibility does not allow an approach to Aspen without the localizer, said the airline’s Horrocks. Ground transportation from Denver or a delayed flight out of Denver to Aspen are also possibilities, he said.
Travelers will be kept abreast of the situation, Horrocks added.
While last fall’s mountaintop localizer troubles sometimes cropped up with little warning, this time the airline knows it will need to go to plan B when cloud cover doesn’t allow a visual approach, Horrocks noted.
“We’ve had forewarning so we can plan a little better,” he said.
In addition to the impacts associated with the localizer relocation, SkyWest will not be able to fly its jets into Aspen on six days – during a three-day period in mid-September and one in early October – when the existing runway will shrink to 6,000 feet in length to accommodate construction work on the south end.
The airline will make other arrangements for passengers during those periods. It has added additional flights into Eagle on those days, and Colorado Mountain Express will offer shuttle service between Eagle and Aspen/Snowmass on those dates, though it doesn’t typically run shuttles between the two locales during the offseason.
Frontier’s service, with its turboprop aircraft, won’t be affected, but it flies just one flight daily between Aspen and Denver during the fall offseason, starting Sept. 6.
United Express offers eight flights daily to Aspen through Sept. 30, then six daily through Oct. 30 and five flights daily through November. United typically offers three flights daily between Denver and Eagle during the fall; it will up that service to five flights daily for the six days when SkyWest can’t fly into Aspen because of the shortened runway – on Sept. 13-16 and Oct. 4-7.
The $15.4 million runway extension is currently on schedule, according to airport officials, and the airport will remain open throughout construction. The paving of the additional runway length is expected to begin Sept. 7. The runway will be shortened from 7,000 feet to 6,500 feet at that time, and the localizer will be shut down from Sept. 7 through Oct. 22.
Nighttime construction work at the airport will also begin in September.
The extension of the runway – to 8,000 feet when it’s finished this fall – is likely to ease weight restrictions that force commercial airlines to leave seats empty in order to take off with sufficient fuel during warm weather.
American Eagle Airlines recently announced it would begin service to Aspen this winter because the longer runway will make the operation feasible.