Three commercial jets were rerouted to Denver before they could land at Yampa Valley Regional Airport over the weekend, and waiting passengers backed up in the terminal.
The difficulties were the result of several factors including weather, crowded skies over the airport and aircraft that were running low on fuel. Airport officials met Tuesday to explore ways to alleviate congestion later this week as the holiday crowds begin to head home.
An unexpected number of private aircraft arriving at the airport Saturday contributed to the congestion.
"We've definitely outgrown our airspace as well as our terminal facilities," said Ann Copeland, local manager for American Airlines.
Copeland said all the flights eventually made it in. "It was challenging for our customers," she said. "It was challenging for our employees. It was challenging for everyone out there."
The airport was scheduled to receive 16 commercial flights Saturday, many of them overbooked and carrying a combined 1,700 travelers. The arrival of more than 25 private planes under instrument flying conditions added to the crowded skies.
Saturday's weather was a factor in flight operations. However, airport officials said Denver air traffic control put several planes into holding patterns while they waited their turn to land, and that jammed things up on the ground.
Airport Manager Jim Parker said the congestion started with the low cloud ceiling.
"The good news was we got through a very, very busy weekend," Parker said. "But they were all shooting instrument approaches. They go off Denver radar when they go through 13,000 feet and that means one in, one out."
Carol Ficker, station manager for Mesa Airlines/United, said United Express had two 100-passenger jets return to Denver because they couldn't wait in the holding pattern any longer. One commuter jet was diverted Saturday and another Sunday.
"I heard one of the pilots say he was fifth in line to land and he was running low on fuel," Ficker said.
The pilot was able to return to Denver International Airport and take on more fuel. By the time he returned and landed, the result was a two-hour delay, and the passenger waiting area at YVRA was a tangle.
Passengers who already had cleared a 30-minute line to get through security had no airplane to board. That meant there was no waiting room for passengers preparing to depart on other flights.
"It compounds the problem we have in our secure passenger holding room," Parker said. "We had people arriving more than two hours early for their flights. After they had waited a certain amount of time, they didn't want to leave (their place in line). Then we had passengers arriving for another flight on top of that. It's fairly difficult to add more people to a sardine can that isn't big enough to begin with."
Twice, Parker said, Transportation Safety Administration officials felt compelled to shut down the luggage screening station because there was no place for passengers to wait.
YVRA just opened a new 4,000-square-foot terminal expansion that significantly added to the space for passengers waiting to go through security. But the holding room where passengers wait for their boarding calls won't be expanded for at least another two years.
"We still have a terminal that's not capable of holding all those people," Parker said.
Ficker said the plane that returned to Denver about noon Saturday was the same aircraft scheduled to return at 3:35 p.m. After all of the delays, it didn't make it back to YVRA until 7:30 p.m.
In addition to the United Express flights that diverted to Denver, a Continental 737 from Houston went to Denver to refuel before landing at YVRA. A Northwest Airlines Airbus 319 with seats for 124 passengers, was cleared to land shortly before it too would have been forced to head to Denver to gas up.
A spokesperson for Spectrum Jet Center, the business that services private planes at YVRA, confirmed it was a busy weekend. Spectrum received 22 planes Friday and 27 more Saturday. Traffic tapered off to five arriving planes Sunday, but there were 26 planes either in hangars or parked on the apron at midday Monday, customer service representative Vicki Cless said.
Copeland anticipated that airport management would attempt to get clarification from Denver Center Air Traffic Control about how it prioritizes arriving flights for landing clearance.
"All of the department heads and representatives of the Transportation Safety Administration are going to meet and discuss how best to adjust our game plan," Copeland said.
Parker said that within a few years, when scheduled phase two and three improvements at the airport terminal are complete, passenger service would improve.