Airport, travelers endure ‘really, really tough month’ | AspenTimes.com

Airport, travelers endure ‘really, really tough month’

Charles AgarAspen, CO Colorado

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN Airport officials told area business leaders Tuesday that bad weather caused most of December’s flight cancellations and there would be no more cancellations because of low barometric pressure.”It was a really, really tough month,” Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, said after the regular meeting of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “[But] it looks like this pressure-altitude issue is far behind us.”Tomcich called December the worst month since he’s been keeping records since 1995.”Five to 8 percent is normal during winter,” Tomcich said of the cancellation rate. The overall rate was 20.3 percent, up from less than 8 percent during the same period last year.Of the 106 cancellations, 75 were SkyWest jets (69 from the United Express operation, and six from the Delta Connection operation) and 31 cancellations were Mesa Air turboprop flights.

Tomcich said the blizzard Dec. 22 in Denver and bad weather in Aspen and connecting areas were responsible for the bulk of cancellations. Low barometric conditions, coupled with strict barometric regulations on the Bombardier CRJ-700 jets operated by SkyWest, meant the cancellation of 15 flights on days when the weather was clear. The Federal Aviation Administration recently lifted regulations grounding the CRJ-700 if the barometric pressure drops below 29.73 inches. Low pressure is characteristic of a large storm system, said Jim Elwood, director of aviation at the airport, and the resulting cancellations in December were the result of what he called “the perfect storm.” Snow was heavy on the Front Range, while there was low pressure without precipitation in the Roaring Fork Valley.Airline technicians are busy upgrading the software on many CRJ-700s. Fifty of the 62 planes have been updated, and Tomcich said the problem is solved.”I’ve never seen this in 35 years,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant from Evergreen. “This came out of left field … I’ve never heard of barometric pressure having an effect on airport operations.””It’s a paperwork exercise. Safety was never compromised,” Boyd said.Boyd called the December storms and barometric conditions a double whammy for Aspen, and while cancellations hurt tourism, consumers have short attention spans and will come back.

“The draw of an Aspen is going to overcome anything that happened over a couple of weeks in December,” Boyd said. “You’ve made history, and it’s now history.””The effect of any cancellation is the same, regardless of the cause,” said Bob Morris, general manager of the Aspen Mountain Lodge.”People usually find some way to get here,” he said. But December’s cancellations were a strain and, while extended bookings from stranded passengers do mean more revenue for the hotel, it’s not good news for the passengers, he said.”I feel a representative of the airline should have come to Aspen and issued a personal apology,” Morris said.In other news, Elwood said the airport is on track for more than $80 million in upgrades from 2007 to 2012. Proposed improvements include a new terminal building, an underground parking structure and a runway extension.

The first phase of the project is a runway upgrade, and the airport will be closed from April 9 to June 7 for the work.Flights to nearby Eagle County Airport will double from three to six round trips on Dash 8s, 37-passenger turboprops, during the closure. And during the week when Aspen’s airport closure overlaps the last week of the ski season in Aspen/Snowmass, the airlines will fly three Airbus A320s, each with a capacity of 138, to Eagle.”The biggest impact is going to be to locals traveling outbound,” Tomcich said, because the closure coincides with Aspen’s “mud season,” the spring offseason when Aspen residents take off to play.”We think we’ve got a very solid plan moving forward and a good contractor,” Elwood said.Funds from airport use fees, as well as federal funds from taxes on flights, will cover the cost of all upgrades. No money comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket, Elwood said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.

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