Aspen air traffic congestion

Kinney meeting with FAA

by Collin Szewczyk, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Sardy Field sees more than 300 flights on Saturday

New airport director John Kinney will be meeting with Federal Aviation Administration forecasters and control tower staff today to discuss ideas for how to best regulate traffic at Sardy Field after 312 planes flew into or out of Aspen on Saturday, causing headaches for travelers.

Of those flights, 268 were general aviation planes, while 44 were classified as commercial.

The large amount of air traffic coupled with winter weather over the weekend, led to a perfect storm of delays, cancellations and refueling diversions for travelers bound for the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport over the weekend.

“It was an exceptionally busy day and all of the stars were aligned for the wrong reasons,” Kinney said Monday. “We had a lot of pent up demand [following the storm on Friday]. It was a clear day, with another storm forecast for the next day, so you get some ‘get-homeitus.’”

He said when those factors are added to the regular traffic during the holidays, it becomes a “trifecta of congestion.”

There were a combined total of 34 American Airlines, United and Delta flights scheduled to land in Aspen on Saturday, the most since the 1997-’98 season, according to Bill Tomcich, president of the central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass who is the local liaison to the airline industry.

But due to delays and a high amount of private planes at the airport, only 28 landed at Sardy Field while the rest were rerouted or canceled on Saturday.

Kinney noted that smaller, corporate and private jets that hold 10 to 15 passengers have more options of airports to be rerouted to such as Rifle, while larger commercial carriers holding 70 to 80 people have to travel to Grand Junction or back to Denver. Private aircraft often times drop their passengers and then take off for another nearby airport to park the plane because of a lack of parking on the tarmac at Sardy Field.

Kinney said he’s worked with the National Football League in the past on ways to mitigate heavy air traffic congestion during Super Bowls XXIX and XXX, and believes there can be a better way to handle demand at Sardy Field.

He said they came up with a “slot-reservation program” that helped the flow of traffic during the events, and it could possibly work in Aspen, too.

But before making any decisions, he wants to “talk with the pros at the FAA.”

“It’s really 20 to 24 weeks a year that [it gets very busy],” he said. “We need to be more prepared … there’s room for operational improvement. … We can make this more predictable.”

Should commercial planes
have priority?

When asked if commercial aircraft should get precedence over private ones, Tomcich said it would be a good idea since the problem really snowballs when commercial flights are held up.

“Absolutely, I think it needs to be revisited,” he said. “[Especially during times] of airspace saturation.”

Allen Kenitzer, public affairs manager for the northwest region at the FAA, said private planes do not have priority over any commercial aircraft, and that all planes are on a first-come, first-served basis.


Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News A private jet takes off at Sardy Field, with more private aircraft parked on the tarmac in the background on Monday afternoon. Heavy air traffic and winter weather led to a perfect storm of delays, cancellations and refueling diversions for travelers bound for Aspen over the weekend.

“There’s no truth that priority goes to private over commercial [aircraft]. … It just doesn’t happen that way,” Kenitzer said. “They all file flight plans … and it goes into a queue.”

Multiple calls to the local fixed-base operator, Atlantic Aviation, seeking the numbers of private planes that landed in Aspen over the weekend, were not returned.

Sardy Field capacity limited

Kenitzer said Sardy Field’s delays and cancellations over the weekend were mainly because of the airport’s size.

“It’s really a matter of capacity. … It’s Aspen, you’re going to have volume issues,” Kenitzer said. “There’s one runway. It is what it is.”

Kinney also noted the limitations of having a single runway, where planes land and depart from different directions, with a 10- to 15-mile separation between each.

“It slows our capacity, but it’s done for the right reason and is good for the community,” Kinney added.

According to the FAA’s traffic flow management plan, planes in distress get priority over all other traffic. “Lifeguard” flights carrying patients, organs for transplant, or doctors needed for emergencies, also may take precedent, as well as some diversions and other flights requesting special assistance.

Most flights landed in Aspen, 
but many were delayed

Tomcich said the dense traffic was the result of travelers eager to be in town for the holidays and winter weather that came in on Friday and Sunday, sandwiching Saturday and increasing the demand.

“It makes sense. There were a combination of factors and with the holidays, there was a compounded impact,” he said. “It was a perfect storm of being in between two storms.”

Tomcich said there were 28 flights scheduled for Friday and 22 landed at Sardy Field. Four were diverted to Grand Junction Regional Airport and two were canceled.

He said 32 flights were scheduled for Sunday, with 23 landing, three rerouted to Grand Junction and six were canceled.

Marissa Snow, director of corporate communications at SkyWest Airlines, which partners with Delta, American and United airlines, said two United flights had to refuel in Grand Junction on Saturday and one was sent back to Denver.

She said the reason for the delay and subsequent refueling, was listed as heavy traffic, saying some could be due to “[general aviation traffic] issues.”

Nose wheel damaged on plane

On Saturday, a plane was being towed out to the runway when the “tug” slid off the runway, damaging the aircraft and forcing the flight’s cancellation

“Flight 5212 from Aspen to Chicago, operating as United Express, was canceled Saturday after an aircraft tug lost traction and caused damage to the nose wheel,” Snow wrote in an email. “We provided overnight accommodations to the 70 passengers and seats on an extra flight segment Sunday.”

She added that three flights were diverted to Grand Junction on Sunday as well, but that buses brought those passengers to Aspen.

Overall, Tomcich was impressed by the efforts put forth from the airlines to get travelers to Aspen despite the operational and weather-related challenges.

“The airlines are busting their tails,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to move people to and from our little airport.”
collin@aspendailynews.com

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