Friday, September 10, 2010

Anger Grows Over Airport Woes

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 4:29 PM

Delays and cancellations at the Arcata-Eureka Airport (ACV) have caused a community uproar in recent weeks as construction work has taken a key piece of navigation equipment offline. This interruption of service to the airport's instrument landing system (ILS), which helps incoming pilots navigate in low-visibility conditions, has long been foreseen, but angry travelers, armed with horror stories, are arguing that neither airport personnel nor commercial carriers are doing enough to inform travelers of conditions. Late this afternoon, however, United Express agreed to issue refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled. Read on.

The impacts of the delays and cancellations have been widespread, forcing many travelers to rent cars or seek alternate modes of transportation at their own expense. A Facebook page called ACV Airport Blues has been created as an informal gathering spot for sharing information and comparing tales.

Zuzka Sabata, community coordinator for the Dell'Arte theatre company, said in a phone interview today that she's had firsthand experience with such headaches and has heard countless similar stories in recent weeks. She feels that attributing the problems to weather is inaccurate. "It's quite obvious that airlines are taking advantage of the situation -- not giving people information and not copping to the fact that it's not the weather, it's the equipment," Sabata said. "They're relinquishing responsibility." In preparation for an east coast tour, Dell'Arte recently elected to ship costumes and props via FedEx -- at an increased cost -- rather than risk a delay or cancellation at the local airport.


County Supervisor Mark Lovelace said he sympathizes with these woes. "It's a tremendously frustrating situation, especially for someone stranded at one end or the other" Lovelace said when reached for comment this afternoon. The Board of Supervisors has been receiving a large number of phone calls and e-mails, particularly in the last few days. And while Lovelace expressed sympathy for stranded travelers, he said that the construction work is a necessary and temporary inconvenience. 

The airport is installing what's known as an Engineered Material Arresting System, or EMAS, an emergency measure designed to stop a plane from overrunning the runway in much the same manner as runaway truck ramps can rescue semi drivers on steep downhill grades. This project, which was required by the FAA, should allow more service from regional jets once it's completed, Lovelace said. 

While individual experiences are certainly frustrating, Lovelace said that the scope of the problem has been overblown. Of the 481 flights scheduled from Aug. 1 through Sept. 9, 408 have landed sooner or later, according to information provided to the BOS from County Airports Manager Jacquelyn Hulsey. And of the 73 flights that didn't land, only 55 were canceled due to the ILS being down -- again according to Hulsey.

The airport manager promised to send the Journal information by e-mail no later than 4 p.m. today, yet nothing had arrived by 4:30 p.m. Hulsey did, however, e-mail Lovelace late this afternoon to inform him that United Express has agreed to issue full refunds to customers whose flights were cancelled. Lovelace said it's his understanding that other airlines have agreed to do the same thing. It's unclear how or if this applies to passengers whose flights were redirected, Lovelace said, and he added that affected customers should contact the airline (United, for example) and not the carrier (Horizon Air, say).

Sabata gives some of the blame to the county, saying officials should be doing more to inform travelers. "The thing that really shocked me is that there is no information whatsoever on the county website about the construction or  the rampant delays and cancellations," she said. "It should be in bold letters across the top or on a sign at the airport. It seems like a real failure of responsibility that that information isn't available."

Bill Davidson, a local pilot and member of the county's Aviation Advisory Committee, said the construction work was poorly planned and that many of these delays and cancellations could have been avoided. During his own flights in and out of ACV recently, Davidson has observed conditions that in his estimation would not preclude the use of ILS equipment. "There's no reason ILS can't be up and running when there's no construction equipment in the way," he said. Davidson also suggested that much of the construction work, which entails surface grade changes to the primary runway, could be performed at night, thereby minimizing the impact to travelers. And the work shouldn't have been done at this time of year since fog is often most prevalent in the fall, Davidson added.

Lovelace countered that the work was necessary, and the rainy season would be impossible. He agreed with complaints that more information should be given to travelers but said very few people check the county website when they're preparing to travel. Instead, he suggested, the airlines and online ticket agents like should make an effort to notify travelers of potential delays. 

The ILS is scheduled to be shut down through at least September 24.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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