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"Aviation specialists descend upon Aspen"


 
Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Aviation specialists descend upon Aspen
Group to discuss airport's takeoff and landing procedures
By M. John Fayhee
The Aspen (CO) Daily News

  
A passel of air-industry movers and shakers has been in town the last two days 
to discuss potential remedies for problems associated with the Aspen Airport's 
landing and takeoff procedures.
  
 In May, airport director John Kinney was notified by the Federal Aviation 
Administration that it was cutting the number of allowable "operations" - 
takeoffs and landings - at the Aspen Airport by 37 percent, from 32 per hour to 
20 per hour.
  
 The edict came from out of the blue, with no forewarning, according to Kinney.
  
"That was a first for me," said Kinney, who has worked in the aviation industry 
for more than 32 years. "It was especially disconcerting given the short 
notice."
 
Since the FAA edict landed in his lap, Kinney has been working via regular 
conference calls with a diverse group of representatives from just about every 
facet of the aviation industry to resolve the issue, which, he said, has not 
caused any significant problems - yet.
  
"The conference calls include members of the FAA, representatives of the 
airlines that service the Aspen Airport, members of the associations 
representing pilots, aircraft manufacturers and just about every entity 
imaginable," Kinney said. "We have 50 or 60 people on each conference call."
 
Many of those same people have ventured to Aspen (mostly via airplane) to hash 
out issues related to the Aspen Airport's unique logistical circumstances.
  
 According to Kinney, at most airports throughout the nation, planes land and 
take off in the same direction on a runway. If planes land traveling directly 
west, they take off traveling directly west.
  
 Airports throughout the nation are allowed to handle a total of 64 operations 
an hour per runway.
  
 At the Aspen Airport, planes land in one direction and take off in the 
opposite direction. That reality - governed predominantly by terrain issues - 
means that the Aspen Airport has historically been able to handle only half 
that number.
  
 According to a statement issued in June by the FAA, "Controllers in the Aspen 
tower have resolved head-to-head conflicts by alerting pilots to aircraft 
traveling in the opposite direction and turning aircraft to avoid conflicts. A 
recent review by the FAA determined that the controllers' instructions to 
departing aircraft conflicted with some requirements of the published departure 
procedures and with the pilots' responsibility to keep their aircraft safely 
above surrounding terrain.
  
"The published departure procedures ensure separation from terrain," the 
statement continued. "FAA regulations related to terrain and obstruction 
clearance say that an aircraft must fly the departure as published, without 
controller input - even though Aspen controllers' instructions prevented 
aircraft conflicts. As a result, the FAA suspended use of this procedure until 
an alternative is developed."
 
"That situation puts the liability on the air-traffic controllers," Kinney 
said. "At the workshop [yesterday and today], we have been talking about 
various risk-management programs. We have been discussing a lot of different 
options."
 
Some of those options are centered on scheduling.
  
"Hypothetically speaking, if we, all of a sudden, have 75 arrivals scheduled, 
under the old system, we could accommodate that number in less that three hours 
- 32 the first hour, 32 the second hour and nine the third hour," Kinney said 
in June. "Now, we can have 20 landings per hour. So that means there would be 
15 landings pushed into a fourth hour."
 
The result, Kinney said, is not that there will be fewer planes landing and 
taking off from the Aspen Airport, but that those operations will have to be 
spread out over a longer period of time, which means that some flights might be 
delayed.
  
"The airport is open from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m.," Kinney said. "At the old 32 
operations per hour number, that put us at 512 operations per day, which never 
happened," Kinney said. "Under the new regulations, that would have us at a 
potential of 320 operations per day."
 
Those numbers are way above current use rates at the Aspen Airport, the state's 
third-busiest aviation facility.
  
 Current use numbers - including all manner of aircraft, from commercial 
airlines to corporate jets to private jets to training flights to military 
aircraft - run about 105 flights a day. That translates to about six-and-a-half 
operations per hour and about 38,000 operations per year.
  
"The issue is that our busiest time is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.," Kinney 
said. "That's when we run the risk of choke points as a result of the new 
regulations."
 
Kinney has been working with the FAA and the commercial airlines that service 
the Aspen Airport to modify schedules to avoid potential chokepoints.
  
"Direct flights to Aspen can originate from more than a half-dozen distant 
airports," Kinney said.
  
 As well, the FAA has signed off on a plan that will allow pilots taking off 
from the Aspen Airport to more freely utilize VFR - visual flight rules - when 
visibility permits. VFR, as opposed to IFR - instrument flight rules - allows 
for less separation between airport operations.
  
 Thing is, VFR can't be used during inclement weather or at night.
  
 Looking long term, Kinney said there will be a push by the FAA to integrate 
new technology into the landing and takeoff equation.
  
"The FAA is talking about bringing more global positioning technology to 
Western Slope airports," Kinney said. "We're talking two to three years out. 
That will make it so there is less reliance on ground-based control. It will be 
more precise."
 
Kinney said there will be a follow-up meeting in Aspen at the end of September.
  
 The goal, he said, is  for the airport to have its operational ducks in a 
huddle before winter, when weather and dense flight schedules will almost 
assuredly test the limits of the new FAA operational edict.
  
 Kinney makes no bones about it: During busy times of year, when the weather 
turns bad, there will be issues, at least partially because the Aspen Airport 
will, as a result of the 20 operations per hour limitation, be less able to 
make up for delays by packing more operations per hour into the new operational 
reality.
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