Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 8, 2013

Political standoff strikes thousands of Traverse City airport travelers

By ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A perfect storm of bad weather, a new runway, and a political standoff in Washington, D.C. meant nearly 2,300 airline passengers were bounced from weekend flights to and from Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport.

About 95 percent of flights — 55 in all — were canceled on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, said Airport Director Kevin Klein.

“It was awful,” said Kathie Bailey, an Avis sales agent. “People were renting cars to drive anywhere, everywhere just to get out of here.”

Avis sales agent Alyssa Irwin said a long line of desperate travelers awaited her when she arrived to work Friday at 7:30 a.m. They wanted to rent a car in order to meet connecting flights in other cities.

One Avis sales agent stayed at the desk until Saturday at 3 a.m. to rent cars to those who flew in late. Flight cancellations continued through Sunday, Irwin said.

“People were kind of mad, confused on how to get where they were going,” Irwin said. “A lot were banding together to rent cars. It was kind of nice to see that.”

Angie Kirby said her husband was scheduled to fly out of San Antonio on Delta Airlines at 4 p.m. and arrive in Traverse City at 11 p.m. that night.

“They called him at 1 p.m., canceling due to weather, and it wasn’t even foggy; there was no bad weather,” she said. “I’m angry with Delta, canceling a flight so early on, on false pretenses so they wouldn’t have to reimburse him for the ticket, and he paid about triple price for it because he bought it at the last minute. I had to spend gas money and six hours on the road to pick him up in Grand Rapids.”

The perfect storm began with foggy, rainy weather, and cloud ceilings of 500 to 700 feet. That isn’t normally enough to stop air traffic, but factors were compounded with the opening of a 400-foot runway extension at Cherry Capital Airport last week.

The Federal Aviation Administration was slated to restore full capabilities in the instrument landing system for the longer runway following a flight check and publication of the new procedures. But that was put on hold after the federal budget fight broke out last week over funding the Affordable Care Act. A partial government shutdown benched the Federal Aviation Administration employees who were supposed to work on the landing system.

Until it’s fully restored, aircraft pilots have fewer instrumental supports and require higher visibility to land — specifically, a 900-foot cloud ceiling and two miles of visibility. During normal operations, aircraft can land and depart with a 200-foot cloud ceiling and a half-half mile of visibility, Klein said.

Foggy weather and low clouds are typical for autumn, so travelers “absolutely” could reschedule future flights to different airports and avoid the threat of cancellation, Klein said.

It’s too early to say whether air travelers have started doing that, Klein said.

“But the airport and airlines are working together to get the FAA to bring people in to get this job completed, and we’re putting every effort to do that,” he said. “We are trying to get an exception made (to the furlough). We’re trying to put forth it’s a safety issue and get this accomplished.”

Once work begins, it should only take a matter of days, he said.