Durango-La Plata County Airport lacks federal certification to use a backup system that would have prevented delays for hundreds of passengers this week.
A broken visibility sensor led to 17 flight cancellations Thursday and one Friday, creating delays for about 400 passengers waiting to leave. The last of the delayed passengers were expected to leave today. The sensor, which measures particles in the air, was repaired late Thursday evening.
On Friday evening, a few passengers lingered in the lobby waiting for their rescheduled flights.
Kim Dickinson was scheduled to leave Thursday to visit family in Kansas City and spent several hours waiting for her flight before returning home.
“It was disappointing and inconvenient,” she said Friday night before finally boarding.
Her experience probably could have been prevented.
Firefighters at the airport have been trained for about a year to complete weather observations when equipment fails, said Kip Turner, aviation director.
However, because the airport doesn’t have federal certification, employing the firefighters to compile visibility data in lieu of the sensor would have been illegal.
The National Weather Service handed the certification process over to the Federal Aviation Administration over a year ago. But the FAA was not prepared to administrate the program, Turner said.
“We’re doing everything in our power to urge the FAA to accelerate their program,” he said
The airport paid for firefighters to get certified after a similar sensor failure last year and bought the necessary equipment, said Dennis Ray, aircraft rescue firefighting chief.
So the airport was prepared with the necessary local topography maps to provide visibility data to commercial pilots. But its hands were tied.
“We had zero control over the situation,” Turner said.
The airport at one time had certification to use weather observers like the firefighters, but the certification expired when Turner started at the airport in 2013.
While the weather service can’t grant certification, it still manages the visibility sensor and other devices that measure cloud height, dew point, wind speed and precipitation, among other factors.
On Tuesday, experts in the weather service’s Grand Junction office were alerted to the malfunctioning sensor and came down Wednesday to fix it. The crew expected the repair to take only an hour Wednesday afternoon, said Tony Vicari, an operations specialist with the airport.
“They thought it was a slam dunk,” Vicari said.
But the visibility sensor failed around 7 p.m. Wednesday.
A new sensor was shipped overnight Wednesday from Kansas City to the National Weather Service Office in Grand Junction. While the weather service crew was installing the new sensor Thursday, another problem was discovered.
A heating element needed to keep a pane within the sensor from fogging up also needed repairs, and a part had to be retrieved from Cortez, Vicari said.
Experts from the agency will be back Wednesday to do scheduled maintenance.
While the weather service crew scrambled to repair the sensors, some passengers made the best of the situation.
Nelson Caraballo, visiting Durango from Columbia, was pleased to spend two more days with friends after his flight was canceled Wednesday.
“It worked out perfect for me,” he said Friday evening before his flight.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Herald staff writers Ann Butler and Dale Rodebaugh contributed to this report.