TRAVERSE CITY — Air travelers have enjoyed smooth traveling at the Cherry Capital Airport thanks to work completed during the partial federal government shutdown.
The Federal Aviation Administration still has work to do, but federal employees made enough progress to avoid flight cancellations due to bad weather, said Kevin Klein, airport director.
“I’m knocking on wood, but since the (Oct. 5) weekend, we haven’t lost one flight to weather, and we’ve had some pretty tough weather since then,” Klein said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed , hanging a rosary on the bush, doing all those things.”
Klein was referring to the Oct. 4 to 6 weekend, when a stormy collision of Mother Nature, a partial government shutdown and a new runway extension grounded 95 percent of the airport flights, impacting nearly 2,300 passengers.
That weekend 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 airport extension the week before.
The FAA was slated to perform a flight check of the instrument landing system for the longer runway and publish new procedures. But the work was put on hold after the government was partially shut down on Oct. 1 and the needed FAA employees were benched.
That meant aircraft pilots had fewer instrumental supports and required higher visibility to land — specifically, a 900-foot cloud ceiling and two miles of visibility. Normally aircraft can land and depart with a 200-foot cloud ceiling and a half-half mile of visibility, Klein said.
Klein feared even more cancellations, but the airport had fortunately submitted full payment for the FAA contract work before the shutdown. That allowed furloughed FAA employees to return to work the week of Oct. 7 and perform a flight check of the instrument landing system and runway lights, Klein said.
The light lane flight check was vital, since it allowed planes to land even with the tighter visibility standards, Klein said.
“The approach lighting to the runway is what people will see driving down Three Mile (Road,)” Klein said. “Those lights are now in service; if the pilot sees those lights, they can declare they’re in an airport environment and continue on even with marginal visibility. If they can see the lights, they can come in.”
Klein said it took a lot of “browbeating” of the FAA offices, with email and phone call pressure applied by the airport, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, the U.S. Coast Guard Traverse City commander, and the airlines.
“It was a big effort to keep folks focused on Traverse City. We were successful,” he said.
Klein feared that if the FAA had delayed its flight check, the instrument landing system wouldn’t be finalized until February. Now it’s on track for December 12, pending FAA publication of the instrument landing procedures. Once that’s done, the normal visibility standards will apply, Klein said.
Klein cautioned air travelers to keep an eye on the weather and recommended they download an airport app from the website, tvcairport.com.
“In all honesty, I haven’t slept a lot since the beginning of October, and I’m on our app at night looking at our arrivals or departures,” he said. “It’s very, very thorough.”