Sep. 25--Once winter arrives, the skies can get so crowded with small planes flying in visitors to Aspen, Vail and other ski areas that charter pilot Andrew Doremus can't even fly home.
"The problem is there's only so much space, and when the weather is not perfect, the mountain airports can only accommodate a certain number of airplanes per hour," Doremus said. "The valleys aren't any bigger, the airports aren't any bigger, but more people are coming."
Doremus owns the Rifle Jet Center and is director of operations for a charter company, The Flight Department.
In poor conditions, as few as six aircraft an hour can come into Aspen and four per hour into Vail. "And you'll have 100 planes coming on real peak weekends, so you can see the issue developing right there," Doremus said. Small aircraft such as business jets share the airspace with airliners.
It's a problem that has worsened in the past several years with the growth of the fractional-ownership jet market spurring heavier traffic and bigger planes.
Another factor contributing to traffic: The hassles of airline travel are driving some with the financial wherewithal to choose private jets.
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport director Jim Elwood compared the traffic problem at mountain airports during the ski season to searching for a parking spot in Cherry Creek.
"If you go shopping at Cherry Creek mall and drive around till you find a parking spot, sometimes you don't find a parking spot for a long time, or it's not where you planned to park," Elwood said.
"There's a lot of activity going on as people are trying to get into Aspen. They're trying to get into Eagle, they're trying to get into Telluride. -- It's not surprising to find that there's a limit to the amount of airspace." On the busiest air-traffic days for mountain airports -- holidays such as Christmas and New Year's -- the Federal Aviation Administration puts in place a slot-reservation system. Airlines are exempt from the system, but all other aircraft operators must enter reservation requests for the times they want to fly.
Because there is such high demand, not all requests are granted.
"It's very frustrating," Doremus said. "Sometimes you end up in Grand Junction."
When that happens, Doremus either rents a car and drives, waits and tries to fly later, or spends the night.
Many pilots put in multiple reservation requests, hoping one will be accepted. That exacerbates the problem, making it difficult for the FAA to forecast how much traffic will actually fill the skies.
"When folks coming into Colorado in these type of aircraft can't get to where they want to be, there's a very negative economic impact to the state of Colorado," state aeronautics director Travis Vallin said.
He said he hears from people who are inconvenienced by the congestion at mountain airports -- "people flying aircraft that cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 an hour to operate."
Bad weather and treacherous terrain will always limit the number of planes those airports can handle, but several agencies are working on ways to alleviate the strain.
"We are highly supportive of trying to get the maximum amount of blood out of the turnip, if you will," said National Business Aviation Association director Bob Lamond.
The FAA and the Colorado Division of Aeronautics are working on a new system that would enhance surveillance of airborne planes and allow airports to land them more safely and more efficiently.
Aspen already has a radar system, and Eagle-Vail is getting one this winter, but the new system would add coverage between those airports and at airports that serve Craig, Steamboat Springs, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Gunnison, Telluride, Montrose, Cortez, Durango and Alamosa.
The new surveillance system could cost $20 million to $30 million. Vallin plans to go to Washington, D.C., in October to meet with the FAA for financing. He also expects help to come from the state, local governments and potentially the private sector.
Vallin hopes to begin putting in a surveillance system next spring, starting with Craig, Steamboat and Hayden, and phasing in the rest over 18 months. He said it would be the first application of that type of system in the continental United States.
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