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‘Routine’ procedure grounds flights

By Dale Rodebaugh , Shane Benjamin Herald staff writers

The National Weather Service in Grand Junction and Durango-La Plata County Airport officials are looking for a way to avert flight delays such as those that occurred Thursday morning stemming from routine maintenance on a weather-monitoring system.

Flights were grounded for about three hours during the maintenance from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Two flights were delayed and two flights were canceled, including a Durango-to-Phoenix flight on US Airways and a Dallas-to-Durango flight on American Eagle, said airport director Kip Turner.

Flights resumed normal schedules Thursday afternoon, Turner said.

Turner said he would have liked more notice.

The Weather Service is required to perform periodic maintenance to its system. It notified the airport and airlines of the scheduled maintenance Wednesday night, said Chris Kornkven, an electronics system analyst with the Weather Service.

“We’re trying to work out a procedure to assure reaching a person who can disseminate a notice of upcoming routine maintenance,” Kornkven said.

Turner concurred.

“He and I talked several times today,” Turner said. “I think that going forward, we’ll get timely notification.”

An alert notifying the airport of the maintenance scheduled Thursday was left as a voice mail late Wednesday and retrieved even later that day.

“We thought that because there was no confirmation, there wouldn’t be maintenance,” Turner said.

Several passengers who needed to be in Phoenix or Dallas rented a car and drove one way to Albuquerque or another city, according to rental-car companies at the airport.

Avis Rent A Car had two people drive one way to Albuquerque and one person drive one way to Lubbock, Texas, said counter agent Baze Padilla. Several others returned cars Thursday morning only to rerent them a couple of hours later, presumably because they are tourists and planned to spend an extra day in Durango, he said.

Peter May-Ostendorp of Durango said he was on a United Express flight that had been scheduled to leave Durango at 10:06 a.m. for Denver. Passengers sat on the plane for 1½ hours before they deplaned.

Passengers were told there was a weather service outage and all outgoing and incoming flights were grounded.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires a certain level of weather observations to be made for flights to take off and land, but no one at the airport currently is certified to provide backup for the system when maintenance is being performed, Korn-kven said.

Turner said the airport is working toward the certification.

“Usually, the system does all of that for you, and the only time you need something like that (certification) is when something like what happened today – while the system is temporarily down,” Turner said.

The airport has been without such backup for at least two years, Kornkven said.

The automated system gathers readings on temperature, cloud height, visibility, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure and precipitation.

Quarterly, semiannual and annual maintenance schedules are performed on the system, Kornkven said. Additionally, unscheduled repairs and system modifications are done.

A modification – uploading software and later calibration – was what was done Thursday, Kornkven said.

Three National Weather Service technicians are deployed from Grand Junction to cover an area that stretches from Flaming Gorge, Utah, to Cortez and then east to Aspen and all points in between, Korn-kven said.

The techs work at 10 airports such as Durango, 10 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration radio weather alert systems, a radar transmitter on Grand Mesa and 30 remote surface temperature/precipitation stations.

shane@durangoherald.com

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