Thursday, May 08, 2014

Diverted flights should end with airport equipment repair: Jackson Hole (KJAC), Wyoming

A broken piece of equipment at Jackson Hole Airport has forced several Jackson-bound commercial flights to cancel or land in Idaho Falls in recent weeks.

A Federal Aviation Administration technician is visiting the airport today to fix the faulty device.

The airport’s “automated weather observation system” has been down since April 16. The loss of the instrument, coupled with the 9 p.m. closing time for the airport control tower, has forced two commercial flights to reroute to Idaho Falls Regional Airport and another four commercial flights to cancel altogether.

“Hopefully we’re going to have some resolution with this by the end of the week,” said Craig Logan, the airport’s director of operations.

“They’ve ordered a new visibility sensor,” he said. “Right now it’s not reporting the visibility and the ceiling — how high the clouds are.”

An FAA tech is coming to install the replacement equipment today, Logan said. A tech came last week to look at the weather observation system, he said, but didn’t make any repairs.

A working weather observation system is something of a necessity for pilots landing at Jackson Hole Airport after 9 p.m. The control tower at the airport, which is staffed and managed by the FAA, shuts down every day at that time.

Without the tower, pilots announce their intent to land on a common radio channel. They then depend on the weather observation system or certified weather observers for on-the-ground conditions.

“It’s what they call flying in the blind,” airport director Ray Bishop said.

“In my view, when you have a 757 coming in at 9:30, it’d be very nice to have an active control tower,” Bishop said. “I’ve always said that it would be safer.”

The airport director said he’s lobbied the FAA for years to keep the control tower open later. But it’s been a fruitless effort, Bishop said.

“I’ve lost that argument for the last eight years,” he said. “It’s very frustrating to me.”

One flight a day right now is landing at the airport after 9 p.m. During peak season, about two commercial flights come in each day after that time, Bishop said.

In part because of the tower’s limited hours, hundreds of travelers since mid-April have faced flight delays or the inconvenience of being bused from Idaho Falls.

Jackson Hole resident Zoe Lloyd was one person faced with an extra travel leg. Lloyd’s April 28 flight from Salt Lake City was supposed to land in Jackson at 9:01 p.m., but instead landed in Idaho Falls.

“We didn’t get to Jackson till 3 in the morning,” Lloyd said. “It was a really horrific experience.

“If it’s because the airport is not providing the service necessary, there is something wrong,” she said. “People need to know about this. Why would they book a flight that lands after 9 p.m.?”

Bishop said the airport has no say in the tower’s hours, which are decided by the FAA.

“The FAA’s contract with the tower says that they close at 9 p.m.,” he said. “It’s always been that way. I’ve tried numerous times to encourage the FAA to change it.”