ASPEN " Saturday, March 15, might go down as one of the busiest days at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. But as far as passengers are concerned, it might rank as one of the most frustrating.
You won't get an argument from those who paid to fly on SkyWest Airlines Flight 6826. Originally scheduled to depart at 12:47 p.m., the Denver-bound flight didn't take off until 7:11 p.m. " the day's longest delay.
Of the 30 commercial flights scheduled to leave Sardy Field for Denver that day, 14 ran late, and two were canceled. Seven of those delays lasted more than one hour.
While that much is clear, determining the reason for the delays is not.
SkyWest pointed the finger at the Federal Aviation Administration, which was dismissive about the claim. The father of one of the stranded passengers suggests both are to blame. And the director of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Jim Elwood, takes a neutral position.
More clear is that it also was a monster day for general aviation, with more than 100 private aircraft flying into Aspen that day. The result was bogged-down traffic flow, which stymied commercial flight schedules.
"You're causing a huge inconvenience for hundreds of people who fly into Denver," said Aspen resident Richard Simpson, whose daughter was stuck at the airport for most of the day in question. "I'd like to know what (Washington) D.C.'s policy is, because in my opinion, you're screwing over hundreds of people by letting in extra private aircraft."
FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said last week the policy is fairly simple: It's first come, first serve.
"An aircraft is an aircraft and there's no preferential treatment unless there's an emergency, he said. "And I can tell you that any delays were not induced by the FAA or Air Traffic Control."
Stranded travelers at the airport, however, were given a different story. They were told, over the airport's intercom, that commercial flights were being grounded because of the high volume of private flights.
"It was related to Air Traffic Control, and out of the airline's control," SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow said Friday.
Whatever the case, Saturday's travel woes cast a spotlight on the difficulties general aviation can create at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Commercial flight schedules also were disrupted by a major storm a day earlier, which created a backlog of travelers trying to leave Aspen the next day. It was the same case with general aviation that day.
Making matters worse, a private plane slid off the runway that afternoon, prompting officials to close Sardy Field for more than an hour. Also, the FAA did not employ its slot-control system, which regulates the number of aircraft that can fly in out of Sardy Field on an hourly basis. The FAA's Fergus admitted as much, but said that was not a contributing factor to the day's travel hassles.
Despite the overwhelming traffic at the airport that day, Elwood said landings and departures by private aircraft are down 18 percent for the first two months of 2008. While Elwood noted that the onslaught of snow those two months certainly played a part in the decline, he noted this also could mark the beginning of a trend in which more private fliers are switching to commercial.
Elwood pointed out that operations counts (take-offs and landings) for general aviation were 2,336 in January 2007, compared to 1,916 last January. At the same time operations counts for commercial flights increased, from 1,916 in January 2007 to 2,185 last January.
Likewise, the trend held in February, with general aviation generating 2,054 operations counts in 2007, compared to 1,604 last February. But commercial increased from 1,868 in February 2007 to 2,163 this past February.
And because of increased landing fees, the airport is reaping more revenues. Elwood reported that general aviation accounted for $112,692 and $109,615 in January and February, respectively. The airport brought in $133,051 and $133,424 in January and February, respectively, thanks to commercial landing fees.
"There could be a trend that is tying better commercial service to fewer general aviation operations," Elwood said, noting that when Frontier Airlines cracks the Aspen market next month, it will join United Airlines, which for years has provided the only Denver-to-Aspen connection. (United is operated by SkyWest, which also operates the Delta flight to Salt Lake City).
"With Frontier coming aboard, whether or not more (general aviation users) will be interested in flying the airlines, I'm not sure," he said. "But I have heard a number of general aviation (users) say that if we had good commercial airline choices, in terms of available seats, that they would leave their airplanes at home.
"It will be curious to see what happens."