aspen airport

United and American planes sit side by side at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Sept. 14. On Wednesday, scheduled maintenance of a navigation system — coupled with unexpected inclement weather in the area — led to every Aspen flight either being diverted or canceled. 

A series of unfortunate events left would-be travelers with plans of coming into or out of Aspen on Wednesday scrambling to make alternative arrangements.

It was coincidence, after all, that maintenance on the Very High Frequency Omni-Directional Range, or VOR — a navigational system located on Red Table Mountain that informs low-visibility airport approaches — was scheduled for a day that the Roaring Fork Valley area saw flash-flood warnings, sheets of rain and sleet and snow in the high country.

“What happened is that the [Federal Aviation Administration] took it down yesterday afternoon for scheduled maintenance,” explained Dan Bartholomew, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport director. “The reason it was timed that way was because the weather was supposed to be relatively decent. The airlines that fly in here, they have procedures that state that that has to be an operational navigational aid during low-visibility conditions.”

Low visibility was certainly an accurate description for Wednesday’s morning and early afternoon conditions, and it led to every one of the 12 scheduled inbound flights either being rerouted to Grand Junction or canceled outright, said Bill Tomcich, an air industry consultant and local liaison to the airlines.

“Bad timing, to do maintenance work on the VOR on a day when we had really the rainiest day I think we’ve had this year,” he said. “It’s a key navigational aid, not just for the Aspen airport but for traffic coming and departing from Denver. It’s a major approach fix for all the east-west traffic coming over all of Colorado.”

He said SkyWest Airlines, the third-party carrier that operates flights on behalf of commercial carriers United and American in the Aspen market, can operate under visual conditions. “…Today, we didn’t have those visual conditions,” Tomcich said Wednesday.

American Airlines diverted all three of its scheduled flights with planned arrivals into Aspen — instead, the two planes coming from Dallas/Fort Worth landed in Grand Junction, and an incoming plane from Chicago was rerouted to Denver. The airline canceled all three outbound flights, Tomcich confirmed.

United Airlines’ passengers with hopes of flying into Aspen from Denver, meanwhile, found themselves staying the night in the capital city. Two flights coming from Los Angeles and Houston were diverted to Grand Junction. Like American, United canceled all of its outbound flights Wednesday, nine in total.

As of press time Wednesday, the first two scheduled outbound United flights from Aspen today (Thursday) also were canceled.

Bartholomew said Wednesday afternoon that he wasn’t sure when the VOR would again be operational — but if the weather cooperates and the sky is clearer, it won’t matter one way or the other for commercial flight schedules.

“We haven’t heard yet whether it’ll be back up,” he said. “Again, if the visibility isn’t like it was today [all will go as scheduled]. Even right now, as I’m sitting here, the visibility is fine to operate without that operational guide. It was the perfect storm.”

He emphasized that travelers who were negatively impacted by the situation should contact their respective airlines to make alternative arrangements.

“They have a code where they’ll allow passengers to rebook, so people should contact their respective airlines to do that,” Bartholomew said.

Drivers, too, had their share of weather-caused inconveniences Wednesday. A flash flood warning led the Colorado Department of Transportation to enact a safety closure through Glenwood Canyon on Interstate 70. No debris flows were reported, and the passageway was reopened around 1 p.m. the same day, with a flash flood watch remaining in place until midnight.

Megan Tackett is the editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.