Smoke from Canadian Forest Fires Contributes to Airport Traffic Snarl


Smoke from about 45 fires burning in northern Quebec and fanned by winds out of the north spread a haze throughout New England on Sunday that contributed to record delays at Martha's Vineyard Airport.

Amid high numbers of passengers and air traffic volume typical of the Fourth of July holiday, airport manager Bill Weibrecht said the wall of haze slowed operations.

Islanders waking up Sunday morning were greeted with a most unusual looking sun cloaked in an eerie pink hue. Those arriving at the Island airport Sunday afternoon to catch flights home after the long weekend were greeted with yet another surprise - flight delays.

Richard Kozian, station manager for Pan Am, said there were delays but that everybody booked for a flight went out eventually.

US Airways Express saw its first delay late Sunday afternoon, said station manager Mike Berube, when a 3:24 p.m. flight to Philadelphia departed 40 minutes late.

Delays only increased as time ticked on. The US Airways 5:15 p.m. flight to New York city's LaGuardia Airport was delayed two hours; the 5:55 p.m. flight on the same route by an hour and 45 minutes.

Cape Air spokeswoman Michelle Haynes said delays stemming from the heavy traffic and haze created a snowball effect. By Sunday afternoon, passengers were experiencing delays up to four hours, said Renee Josephson, Cape Air's Island station manager.

Some passengers opted to wait it out while others decided to delay flying for a day. Everyone who patiently stuck it out, Miss Josephson said, eventually got to their destination, as Cape Air kept planes flying past 10:30 p.m.

Ordinarily, Cape Air's last Sunday flight - to Hyannis - is at 9:50 p.m.

The Island airport was busy again yesterday as those who didn't get off the ground Sunday came in to try once more.

"The airport is weeding out" the overflow, Mr. Weibrecht said yesterday.

Cape Air remained very busy Monday afternoon, but flights were not delayed, Miss Josephson said.

Three main factors contributed to the Sunday delays: traffic volume, weather and restrictions.

"Throughout the Northeast there was a good backup of airplanes," said Mr. Weibrecht, in part due to "a generic issue of clearance."

As a result, "a lot of airports - Philadelphia, Providence, Metro New York, Boston - were not accepting traffic at all" for a portion of Sunday afternoon, he explained.

Jim Peters, New England spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said the haze from the smoke of the Canadian forest fires caused the FAA to issue air travel restrictions for the six-state region. Every pilot had to file a flight plan before taking off, only instrument-rated pilots were allowed to fly in the hazy conditions and the spacing was increased between all planes in flight.

"If conditions impact safety, restrict visibility, it will slow down flights," said Mr. Peters. Under such conditions, he added, "It's not unusual to see a jam."

The Island's tower manager said the regulatory changes meant it took more time to get planes off the ground.

Mr. Weibrecht said that announcements made in the airport terminal on Sunday that cited problems in the tower were inaccurate.

He pointed also to the delays at mainland airports. Since the Vineyard's airport is part of the larger aviation network, delays elsewhere affect the timing of flight departures on the Island.

Mr. Peters of the FAA said private aircraft throughout New England were also impacted. The heavy air traffic on the Vineyard came in part from private planes - "More than ever," said Mr. Weibrecht.

"Because Martha's Vineyard has a large mix of private aircraft and commercial, they get pushed back from the gate, nobody jumps ahead in line," said Mr. Peters. "You can only get a certain amount of aircraft in and out in an orderly fashion; it creates a backlog."

On the ground level, the air conditions led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue an air-quality advisory yesterday.

"People with respiratory disease such as asthma should limit outdoor exertion while the smoke and haze are still present," said Robert W. Varney, EPA regional administrator.

The EPA advised people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly and children to "limit prolonged exertion."

Late yesterday, the EPA reported that "smoke from the wildfires in Quebec is not expected to impact air pollution levels in New England today."