Widespread glitches in the satellite-assisted navigational technology that aids communication between aircraft and air-traffic controllers have led to 30 diversions and cancellations of inbound commercial flights to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport over the past week, sources said Thursday.
Locally, the issues have affected a portion of commercial flights operated by SkyWest Airlines on behalf of United Airlines, according to Marissa Snow, spokeswoman for St. George, Utah-based SkyWest. The problem has not occurred with Aspen-bound flights for the two other major carriers that SkyWest serves, Delta Airlines and American Airlines.
“Considering the challenge, we’ve worked pretty well with all of our partners to minimize the number of cancellations,” Snow said.
The problem reportedly relates to a recent update of technology involving GPS transponders carried on certain aircraft, such as the CRJ-700s that fly into Aspen, and global satellite navigation systems. Basically, transponders receive location information from satellites in order to relay that data to air-traffic-control personnel, informing them where each plane is located. Transponder units on certain aircraft haven’t been functioning properly since at least June 7.
Snow said operations are expected to return to normal by early next week. She noted that SkyWest is not the only U.S. carrier that has had to deal with the problem.
Asked why some flights have been diverted to Grand Junction, Snow alluded to the difficulties that can be involved with flying into the mountainous terrain surrounding Aspen.
“We have special procedures given the terrain around Aspen that require a bit more sophistication,” she said. “We do have Grand Junction as an alternate location in winter operations as well, during times when we can’t land in Aspen, and we have good ground transportation from Grand Junction to Aspen too.”
Snow added that most customers have been understanding and patient regarding the issues.
Bill Tomcich, a consultant to a local business partnership that works to maintain relationships with commercial air carriers, said there have been 13 cancellations and 17 diversions of United flights operated by SkyWest between the evening of June 7 and late Thursday afternoon. No cancellations have occurred since Monday — there have only been diversions to Grand Junction.
The summer season for the Aspen airport got underway on June 6, he said. There will be an average of about 20 inbound flights most days and up to 22 on Saturdays.
“Only the United flights are being impacted with diversions and cancellations. All of the American and Delta flights have landed since that last weekend without issue,” Tomcich said.
The issue has affected travel for some visitors coming to Aspen for this weekend’s Food & Wine Classic event, which starts today.
“It’s been a significant inconvenience to a portion of our inbound travelers,” Tomcich said.
John Kinney, director of aviation for the Aspen airport, said in addition to commercial flights, corporate aviation has been affected by the issue as well.
“The first few days that it happened, a majority of flights were canceled, and then they figured out a few workarounds based on the type of equipment inside the cockpit,” he said. “It’s starting to get better about every other day, but there are still aircraft, including in the corporate world, that are still impacted.”
While travel has been affected, safety has not been compromised, Kinney said, adding that it’s unfortunate that the issue occurred just as the Aspen summer tourism season was kicking off.
“This has been hitting hundreds of flights across the country,” he said. “There’s never a good time for something like this, but this isn’t an ideal time by any stretch."