Pilots play the slot game when flying to ski country

 - January 11, 2008, 4:37 AM

Instead of relaxing in front of a warm fire inside a cozy Colorado mountain lodge this winter, some pilots are sitting at home in front of their computer monitors, hot under the collar. Most pilots realize that managing seasonal air traffic into ski country is like funneling an L.A. freeway onto a two-lane country road, but some believe that the FAA’s Denver Center has a flawed system of assigning precious arrival slots to the few airports serving major ski resorts.

The FAA contends that it has done its best to refine the system, but capacity at peak travel times is severely limited–especially in IMC.

Bob Lamond, NBAA’s airports specialist, has been struggling with the problem for the past several years. He told AIN that there has been progress, but added, “Unless you somehow increase capacity–or flatten those mountains–we won’t ever be able to make everyone happy. And if you flattened the mountains, that would take away the reason to go there in the first place.”

The lightning rod of the controversy is the FAA’s special traffic-management program (STMP), which affects five Colorado airports: Aspen- Pitkin County; Eagle County Regional near Vail; Garfield County Regional, far better known as Rifle; Montrose County Airport; and Telluride Regional. STMPs are regularly implemented for special high- traffic events such as the Super Bowl, NBAA Convention and Kentucky Derby. Further, the Denver STMP can be an on-today, off-tomorrow program.

From December to April, the FAA’s ATAC System Command Center in Herndon, Va., decides at 1 p.m. mountain time whether or not the STMP will be in effect for the next day. That decision is based on a number of factors, including forecast weather and anticipated traffic–both inbound and outbound. Available ramp space is part of the equation and command center personnel confer with FBOs every day as part of their decision-making process. For example, if it’s going to be solid IFR on December 24, the STMP is almost certain to be in effect, and the number of slots will be close to the minimum.

For the first time this year, the FAA command center has implemented an online reservation system, the so-called e-STMP. Many pilots have complained that within seconds of the 23:00 UTC time designated to begin taking reservations for the next day, all slots are spoken for. This has led to accusations that large operators are using their manpower to acquire all the slots.

In a notice posted on NBAA’s Air Mail pilots’ forum, Lamond said this simply isn’t so. He wrote that the association has asked the FAA to monitor who is acquiring reservations and cross-check the results against aircraft that actually use them.

Slot Hogs Revealed?

By the end of last month, Lamond expected the FAA to be able to provide those statistics, as well as numbers of reservations available at a given airport compared with the number of aircraft that landed and those that requested reservations but he was unable to get them. He added, “[The FAA] should also be able to provide a statistical breakdown of the types of operators asking for and getting slots. It should surprise no one that the larger operators have a legitimate larger demand for slots and the statistics will therefore show they actually received more slots.”

A big reason for the congestion is that instrument approaches to the more popular area airports, such as Aspen and Eagle, extend a long way through deep valleys. The VOR used for the primary approach into Aspen, for example, is 12 miles from the runway. Since there is no approach radar in the area, each approach must be completed before the next one can begin–limiting IFR arrivals to as few as six per hour. Scheduled airlines could account for at least two of those slots, leaving a worst case of only four per hour for general aviation.

This contrasts sharply with capacity under VMC or at nonpeak times. Chances of the STMP being in effect midweek of a nonholiday period are slim. It’s that inconsistency that gives the FAA command center fits, and can lead to pilots’ frustrations.

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Peter Doremus, CEO of the Rifle Jet Center at Rifle. “There’s limited space at Aspen and Eagle. More airplanes are trying to get in all at the same time. It used to be that there would be 20 Learjets on the ramp at Aspen and a few Gulfstreams. Now, you’ll likely see 15 Gulfstreams and a few smaller jets.

“The approach procedures take a long time, and many large-aircraft operators want to make the full IFR approach, even in VFR conditions.” Doremus acknowledged that many flight departments’ operating manuals don’t permit canceling an IFR clearance for a VFR arrival. “One solution might be to establish a published, accepted procedure to transition from an IFR clearance to VFR; or the reverse–allow flights to depart VFR and pick up an IFR clearance at a predetermined point en route.”

Those who do cancel their IFR clearance and arrive VFR need to be extra cautious, said NBAA’s Lamond. Unless they are familiar with the terrain and weather patterns, they could be setting themselves up for scud running among mountains with potentially conflicting IFR traffic in the area–to say nothing of other VFR arrivals clogging the same narrow valley and funneling toward the runway. And a typical winter-weather pattern for the region includes fast-moving snow squalls that can quickly and unexpectedly reduce VMC to solid IMC.

And if there’s too much IFR traffic in the area, the control towers at Aspen or Eagle could elect to refuse a VFR arrival, leaving the pilot no choice but to divert to Rifle (about an hour’s drive) or, worse yet, Grand Junction, twice as far west.

That would appear to be a plus for Doremus’s Rifle Jet Center, and he has established a marketing plan to match the situation. He advertises that passengers landing at Rifle can be whisked away in luxury limos or SUVs for the 70-minute drive to either Aspen or Vail. In return, Rifle promises a much more arrival-friendly ATC scenario, according to Doremus.

On the NBAA Web site, Lamond has a three-page “general discussion” on the Denver ski country STMP. One of the bulleted items addresses the issue of “nonparticipating flights.”

“In the past there has been a good chance of success at planning to attempt an IFR cancellation and then going VFR into those airports. However, as demand has become greater, that strategy is less effective for the user and for the airport.”

Lamond told AIN that advanced technology may hold some promise for relief. “A radar-like system, such as ADS-B, would enable closer separation on approaches and increase capacity. But that technology is still some time off, and there is the question of who would pay for it. It might be the local airport authorities that will need to be persuaded to write a check.” And some pilots have suggested putting pressure on the local chambers of commerce to help alleviate the logjam of air traffic. If enough high-profile homeowners vote with their feet and decide to sell their expensive ski lodges to go to more airplane-friendly locations, the pilots say, then steps may be in the works to arrive at an alternative to approach radar.