By Kristen Leigh Painter
Ski tourists, airlines and airport officials will delight in a new air traffic technology that was implemented on Monday at Montrose Regional Airport, which is expected to decrease fuel burn and ensure passengers reach the slopes despite Colorado’s precarious weather.
The Federal Aviation Administration and Colorado Department of Transportation are rolling out the Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system designed to help pilots safely land airplanes in mountainous regions — a feat previously frustrated whenever severe weather hit.
“It gives us radar-like coverage in areas that are not covered by radar,” Michael P. Huerta, FAA Acting Administrator, told The Denver Post. “With the expansion of Montrose, going into ski season it gives us some more visibility.”
The FAA and CDOT are launching the system in groupings of smaller, mountain airports. Montrose is the first airport in the second phase to fully activate the system.
CDOT estimates that 75 aircraft are delayed or diverted daily at Colorado’s mountain airports between November and April, resulting in a loss of revenue to the state.
When airplanes enter the mountainous zones and are below the peaks, they pass outside of Denver’s air traffic control radar. During inclement weather, these airports are forced to operate on what is called a “one-in-one-out” system because they don’t have their own towers.
Dave Ruppel, airport manager at Yampa Valley Regional Airport, says that it takes about 15-20 minutes for an aircraft to complete its takeoff or landing operation, and so the one-in-one-out system limits their capacity to only four aircraft per hour.
The new technology uses remote sensors that are placed in rural areas where radar is blocked by the terrain. The sensors send signals to aircraft transponders that then transmit the signal back, providing air traffic controllers with an exact location through the process of triangulation.
“During bad weather times, we often had multiple aircraft circling, waiting to make their arrival, and they often had to divert and land in Denver or elsewhere to refuel,” Ruppel said. “Now we could have an airccraft every three to four minutes, which translates to about 20 aircraft an hour compared to four aircraft.”
Ruppel raves about the WAM system, now in its fourth year of service at Yampa Valley. And while everyone is celebrating Monday’s benchmark, Ruppel says that it was only because of a small group of leaders at CDOT’s Division of Aeronautics who fought to bring the technology to the state.
“The bureaucracy in Washington told them numerous times that it would never have happened,” Ruppel said.
A federal and state partnership formed as a result of the local lobbying effort. CDOT agreed to cover the upfront costs while the FAA agreed to operate and maintain the system and eventually upgrade it to a satellite-based system. The total project cost, which includes Phases 1 and 2, is about $28 million.
Colorado and Alaska are the only states to integrate this new technology.
WAM was first introduced in the state in September 2009 at the Yampa Valley-Hayden, Craig-Moffat, Steamboat Springs and Garfield County Regional-Rifle Airports.
David Gordon, the director of Colorado’s Division of Aeronautics, was among those who lobbied Washington for this technology.
“(The old system) causes a great inconvenience to the traveler,” Gordon said. “It is much less enjoyable if they are delayed or have to get in a car and drive the rest of the way, which doesn’t make for a positive toruism experience and could result in state revenue loss.”
The project’s second phase is slated to be complete in the summer of 2013 when the FAA and State of Colorado deploy WAM in the areas surrounding Durango-La Plate County Airport, as well as Gunnison-Crested Butte and Telluride Regional Airports.