ASPEN — Overcast skies could interrupt travel into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport starting Friday.
The localizer at the airport, which guides pilots making an instrument approach, was taken off line Thursday night as part of ongoing work to extend the runway. For the estimated 45 days that the equipment is down, United Express flights operated by SkyWest will not be able to land in Aspen when cloud cover drops below 6,000 feet or visibility drops below six miles, according to Dave Ulane, assistant airport director.
“Hopefully, the weather is good,” he said.
Partly cloudy skies, as Aspen saw Thursday, won't be an issue, according to Ulane. But unbroken cloud cover below 6,000 feet, preventing a visual approach, could mean diverted flights or ground transportation from Denver for Aspen-bound travelers, according to SkyWest spokesman Wes Horrocks.
The localizer must be relocated to accommodate the additional 1,000 feet that's being added to the south end of the runway.
The final and most disruptive phase of the project began Thursday. Paving of the taxiway that is parallel to the runway has started, Ulane said. The project remains on budget and on schedule, according to airport officials.
In addition to interruptions that could result from taking the localizer off line, the runway will be shortened from 7,000 to 6,500 feet to accommodate construction, and for six days, it will be shortened to 6,000 feet. On those six days — Sept. 13-15 and Oct. 4-6 — SkyWest will be unable to fly into Aspen. The airline has added additional flights to the Eagle County Regional Airport on those days, according to Horrocks, and Colorado Mountain Express is offering shuttle service between Eagle and Aspen/Snowmass on those dates.
An attempt Thursday to book a flight on Sept. 13 from Denver to Aspen produced an online error message.
Frontier, currently flying one flight a day between Denver and Aspen for the fall offseason, is unaffected by the localizer shutdown or the shortened runway. It flies a turboprop aircraft; United Express offers jet service.
The most disruptive runway work is timed to coincide with what will hopefully be clear fall weather, as well as fewer commercial flights because it's offseason, Ulane said.
“We realize there's no good time to do it. There is no perfect time to do it,” he said.
The airport will not close during the runway project, though the construction will affect SkyWest. The $15.4 million project is scheduled to finish in early November. The Federal Aviation Administration is paying for the bulk of the project; the airport's share is $2.4 million.
The extension of the runway — to 8,000 feet when it's finished — is expected to ease weight restrictions that force commercial airlines to leave seats empty in order to take off with sufficient fuel during warm weather. It will also provide opportunities to add flights to more distant locales, according to airport officials.
American Eagle Airlines recently announced it would begin service to Aspen this winter because the longer runway will make the operation feasible.
The longer runway will not, however, accommodate larger planes than what the airport currently accommodates, officials have stressed.