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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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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