Patience wears thin as FAA equipment problem returns

Patience wears thin as FAA equipment problem returns

by Andrew Travers, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer Friday, November 19, 2010

After a third unsuccessful start-up, a navigational aid atop Aspen Mountain used to guide planes landing at the airport shut off on Wednesday, prompting a federal aviation director to meet with frustrated and uneasy local officials at City Hall on Thursday.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been working on replacing the equipment since Oct. 8, when officials estimated it was a two-week project. With problems persisting for more than a month since, and ski season less than a week away, several local officials foretold calamitous local economic repercussions if it isn’t up and running soon.

The inoperable system affects most flights into Aspen, which are operated by SkyWest for United Airlines. The airport’s other carrier, Frontier Airlines, is unaffected because it uses global-positioning technology to land and does not need the on-the-ground aid.

FAA regional director Bob Kitson said at the meeting he believed the “localizer” system would be up and running by Saturday night. Local elected and resort business leaders said they wished they could believe him.

Aspen Skiing Co. vice president David Perry said Kitson showed him “nothing that gives me any confidence whatsoever that we are going to be up and running, and make sure that our economy is not going to collapse.”

Warren Klug, owner of the Aspen Square Condominium hotel and chair of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association told Kitson, “We look at this as as serious a situation as we can have here.”

Slashing the number of tourists flying into Aspen essentially means killing business for hotels like his, Klug said.

“Without that business we’re darn near out of business … It’s a disaster,” he said.

Pitkin County commissioner Rachel Richards said the doomsday scenario of continuously interrupted flights between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day would cause great economic hardship for the tourist-dependent economy, specifying that locals would not be able to pay rent and mortgages.

“People are so nervous about their future because of this and starting to imagine the worst,” Richards said.

She added that the potential inconvenience to travelers would hurt the tourist economy for years to come, as people would choose to go to resorts with more dependable airports.

“That bad PR can take a decade to repair,” she said. “It’s a black eye for all of Colorado, not just us.”

Bill Tomcich, president of the central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, echoed Richards’ concern that travelers who lose faith in Aspen’s airport will stop planning trips here.

“Confidence has been greatly eroded,” he said.

Tomcich stressed that safety should be the top priority of the FAA. But he added that the potential losses to Aspen’s business will increase greatly as December progresses, with the number of daily Aspen flights bumping up from seven to 16 and then to 22 before the end of the month.

While local officials are fretting about the hypothetical loss of business if the localizer isn’t fixed before the ski slopes open on Thanksgiving, SkyWest already has seen a hit to its bottom line by paying to divert flights to Grand Junction and Eagle, and then bussing passengers to Aspen. The company sent two officials to the meeting, and had eight more present via telephone.

SkyWest has had 105 Aspen flights delayed, diverted or canceled because of the equipment issue since Oct. 8. Since then, the airline has had 16 full days without any problems caused by the issue — all days when the weather was clear enough for pilots to land without the localizer. If pilots can physically see the runway from 6,000 feet from the ground, they are permitted to land without the localizer.

Overall, the airport saw 18 percent fewer passengers in October this year compared to last year.

“We’re as frustrated as you are,” SkyWest flight standards manager Shane Losee told Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland.

He pressed Kitson to put a percentage on the probability the equipment will be up and running by Saturday night, as promised. Kitson said it was better than 80 percent.

Ireland asked what the FAA’s “plan B” is if the localizer is not going to work properly.

“I’ll be quite honest, I don’t have a good answer for you at this point,” Kitson replied.

Airport director Jim Elwood asked the same question, via speaker phone from Denver.

“That is a plan I do not have,” Kitson repeated.

In all three of the localizer’s false starts — two when the FAA announced it was ready for a full launch, and once during test flights — the FAA took several days to diagnose and get it to what it thought was working condition.

Perry said those multi-day delays during ski season would be unacceptable.

“That kind of time gap is completely unworkable for us,” he said.

Kitson assured local officials that he had five experts working on the equipment and that he was flying in the FAA’s best technology expert as well.

“Having [FAA] people here doesn’t necessarily make me feel warm and fuzzy,” Perry shot back.

In a moment of levity, Ireland then suggested that the SkiCo give the FAA tech workers free ski passes for the winter, so they can ski and stay near the localizer, which sits on top of the Buckhorn run.

Perry said SkiCo would prefer to chain them to the equipment.

The localizer has shut itself down twice in the last nine days, activating a “fail-safe” system that powers it off when the machine detects it may be sending false information. FAA officials are now trying to figure out why it thought it was sending out bad info.

andrew@aspendailynews.com

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