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Nationwide flight hold Wednesday morning delayed three departures from DRO

FAA’s computer system lets pilots know of safety issues on the ground
Passengers at Durango-La Plata County Airport board an American Eagle flight. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

An error with a ground-to-pilot communication system caused the Federal Aviation Administration to pause flights nationwide early Wednesday, which resulted in delays across the country, including at Durango-La Plata County Airport.

Over 10,000 flights were delayed and more than 1,300 flights were canceled Wednesday morning because of a widespread communications error, Reuters reported the day of the incident.

At least three Wednesday morning departures from DRO to Denver, Dallas and Phoenix were among the delayed flights. The flight plans that included 120 to 150 people on flights traveling through DRO were put on pause between 5 and 7 a.m. after the FAA placed a ground hold on all departures across the country, said Tony Vicari, DRO aviation director.

To his knowledge, the incident on Wednesday was the most significant national ground hold on flights in over two decades, with the last event of comparable scale being the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.

He said the cause for delays was essentially a “blackout” of the FAA’s NOTAM (notice to air mission) system, a safety notification system for pilots that communicates ground and air conditions in real time.

DRO uses the notification system on a near-daily basis to alert pilots of various conditions so they can arrive and depart safely, he said. If light bulbs are out on mandatory signs that prohibit runway access, for example, the airport uses NOTAM to alert pilots to the conditions.

The airport also uses NOTAM to notify pilots of weather conditions – whether there is snow on the runway, how much snow, the braking conditions and whether the runway is open or closed, he said.

Airports were unable to update the NOTAM system from the ground and pilots couldn’t retrieve any updated information about local conditions on Wednesday morning, Vicari said.

“Basically, aircraft, when they were arriving or departing, they wouldn’t have current information around any kind of changing conditions,” he said.

Vicari said many flights probably could have completed their routes without NOTAM information, but safety is a top priority in the aviation industry. Without access to real-time conditions, risk factors increase “exponentially.”

“Our airport was a great example of that. If aircraft couldn’t get an updated condition report on our runway activity, i.e., whether it was open or closed even in that basic sense, that’s obviously a huge safety issue,” he said.

Vicari said the U.S. commercial aviation system has a strong track record when it comes to safety. He said it is “universally considered to be one of the safest air systems in the world,” if not the safest, and the FAA made the right decision by erring on the side of safety and grounding flights.

“That is a very challenging decision to make knowing the vast amount of disruption it will cause,” he said. “It only caused three delays in Durango, but on a national basis I saw some figures – close to 1,000 canceled flights and 10,000 delayed flights. So obviously the ramifications are significant.”

cburney@durangoherald.com



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