It would take an act of Congress to implement a reservation system that prioritizes commercial airplanes at Sardy Field, though advances in technology could help increase accurate scheduling of flights in and out of the complex airspace above Aspen, Federal Aviation Administration officials said Tuesday.
All flights in and out of the local airport are part of a larger puzzle for air-traffic controllers tasked with ensuring timely connections for travelers. That process severely tested the patience of many people trying to fly out of Aspen this winter, with scores of commercial passengers delayed for hours as private jets seemingly had no problems departing.
Greg Dyer, terminal assistant manager for the FAA’s Rocky Mountain district, told the Pitkin County commissioners that while Aspen is an important destination, local air traffic is grouped within an area spanning roughly from the Mississippi River to the West Coast.
People tend to think that airports in major cities are the main players in air travel, he said.
But “Aspen is a big deal for us,” Dyer said. “What we have happening here, especially during peak days in the season, is critically important for the airspace system.”
Many factors can conspire to create delays in such a large airspace, especially if a plane’s destination is a small airfield high in the mountains.
John Kinney, airport director, said air-traffic controllers face issues with weather, mountainous terrain and the head-to-head nature of the runway at Sardy Field.
“It’s very unique airspace,” he said. “It’s challenging in that the airport has a variety of constraints from the size of the footprint for parking corporate aviation [and] commercial aviation, to the size of the terminal building.
“So it’s really sort of a balance between the pavement and that of the sky.”
First-come, first-served priority
Dyer explained that no matter what the perception is, all planes are on a first-come, first-served basis at airports.
This means that if a plane is delayed by 20 minutes coming from Chicago, all planes behind it in line must make adjustments for an equal delay.
“There’s a lot of different things that control capacity in Aspen,” he said.
The time a pilot needs on the runway is a factor, since planes can only land and take off in one direction at Sardy. Parking for aircraft, weather and the amount of planes in the airspace can also be limitations, Dyer said.
Under perfect conditions, the goal is 16 arrivals and 16 departures an hour.
“As far as priority, the FAA’s authorization … comes from Congress and is all based on a first-come, first-served [system],” Dyer said. “Our ability to bring tax money to the Aspen airport, and invest [it here to] make the Aspen airport the resource that it is, means the public gets to use it, so it’s first-come, first-served.”
One caveat is an aircraft with dangerously low fuel or mechanical problems, which would get it top landing priority.
Commissioner Rachel Richards asked exactly what “first” means in the flight queue.
“Is first when you’re over Longmont? Is first when you’re still in Oklahoma?” she inquired. “When does someone get to say when they’re in line?”
Dyer said even if a plane takes off from New York, it’s still factored into the airspace plan for the local region.
“We’re counting that aircraft [from New York] that is over Pennsylvania, and if you have someone that would like to depart Chicago, and we’re already full, you’re giving that [plane] from New York priority ...,” he said. “So it’s a rolling first-come, first-served [system].”
During peak travel season, Dyer used the analogy of someone having 50-yard-line tickets for the Denver Broncos on Sunday morning, and only planning for the minimum amount of time to drive to the stadium.
“The roads are going to be packed, and there’s a whole lot of other people wanting to get there at the same time,” he said. “Aspen is a unique place in the system.”
That is because more people want to fly out of Sardy Field at times than the runway can handle.
Old reservation system was panned
Commissioner Patti Clapper asked about the former reservation system for Sardy Field and how it played out.
Dyer said that while that system had its merits, including better management of the runway in the early morning, people took advantage of the policy. It was also difficult to enforce and created chaos for air-traffic controllers.
“There were a lot of problems with it,” he said. “The reservation program was widely disliked by [general aviation], the National Business Aviation Association, and even by the air carriers. Nobody liked the reservation program.”
Clapper said some pilots would reserve several time slots to ensure multiple arrival and take-off options.
“People were booking times way in advance,” she said. “It was like, you’re flying in 14 times a week, how are you managing that? It was just in case the owners of the jet wanted to come in an hour earlier or an hour later.”
Commissioner Steve Child said that if he were king for the day, the 16 busiest days of the year would operate on a system in which private aircraft must make a reservation well before takeoff, just like commercial flights.
“If it’s too busy, they might have to land in Rifle or Eagle and take a limousine or some other system, or change the date for when they want to come,” he said. “To me it’s not fair to all the commercial aircraft. … It’s terribly unfair to have the commercial passengers have to suffer for the benefit of a few people who own private aircraft.”
David Conley, air traffic manager for the Aspen control tower, said the goal is to use every available landing slot, and simultaneously use every departure slot.
“It’s a balanced equation here at Aspen,” he said. “Say you have more arrivals than departures. Sometimes we may make the decision that the departures are going to have to take some delays in order to deplete the airborne inventory because that has a cascading effect.”
Some private planes flying into Aspen have been in a holding pattern for as much as three hours because the owner has the money to cover the fuel cost, he said. Conley added that planes with low fuel will only get priority if they have declared an emergency.
“When we have aircraft converging on the airport, our main goal … is to prevent collision of aircraft between each other and from terrain and obstructions,” he said. “So that’s what we’re focusing on, to get them where they need to go safely.”
Snowpack affects navigation aids
Dyer said planes coming into Aspen must maintain a safe margin in order to clear nearby mountains in the event of a missed approach.
“That’s the biggest limitation,” he said.
Another factor is the local navigation system, which gives off different readings in the winter and summer. Inspections found that snowpack — as well as summertime festival tents — make the ground more reflective, creating different readings.
“The aircraft … said its equipment was working perfectly,” Dyer said. “But some of our ground points were off because of that reflectivity issue. So we had some meetings about … a dual certification standard, one for the summer and one for the winter.”
Kinney added that the reliability of the navigation aids at Sardy Field has historically been imperfect.
New technology would allow satellite systems to measure this input, rendering the ground units obsolete, but it isn’t ready as most airlines haven’t converted.
“Aspen is just unique,” Dyer said. “It always comes back to the mountains. The fact that it’s so close to the town and so close to the ski areas makes it a more difficult airport to operate from ...”
He said that pilots trust the current system so there’s no urgency to make changes.
Airport staff will be looking into challenges that can be controlled to ensure timely service at Sardy Field. Ultimately, the focus going forward will be on increasing the reliability of the navigational aids.
Conley said staffing levels are at their highest level in 15 years — roughly 24 employees are expected by the end of the year.
“No matter what technology is out there, it’s still going to be a single-runway operation,” he said. “There’re no plans whatsoever to build a parallel runway system here. So dramatically increasing capacity and throughput, you’re limited. … The mountains that are surrounding the airport are always going to be here.”
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