Visitor to Aspen relates difficult air-travel experience on Saturday | AspenTimes.com

Visitor to Aspen relates difficult air-travel experience on Saturday

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

Courtesy of Mary Lupo

Congested airways and runways — primarily caused by an overload of private-jet activity — created numerous problems for commercial planes attempting to fly into and out of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Saturday afternoon and evening, travelers and officials said.

Mary Lupo, a New Orleans dermatologist who owns a second home in the area, spoke of a difficult travel day she faced with her daughter as they were attempting to fly to Aspen from Denver on a United Airlines connecting flight.

Had there been a weather issue in the region Saturday, the problems would have been understandable, Lupo said. But, for the most part, the skies were cloudless between Denver and Aspen throughout the day and evening.

"The weather was perfect," Lupo said. "I was insulted when I saw that United Airlines posted on its website that the problems were 'due to severe weather conditions.' That wasn't what the pilot told us."

Lupo flew from New Orleans to Denver earlier in the day and was supposed to leave for Aspen at 1:25 p.m. The Aspen-bound jet arrived at the gate in Denver on time, but then crew members left the plane and told the gate agent they had been reassigned.

"That poor gate agent was scrambling around, trying to locate a crew, and then he made an announcement that they weren't going to get a crew until 4 p.m.," she said.

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Lupo and her daughter were able to find another flight to Aspen, though. It was scheduled to leave at 2:20 p.m., she said.

"We get on that plane, and we left the gate about 10 minutes late," she said. "We putter out to the tarmac, and we stop. The pilot says, 'We're on a ground hold for an hour because of an inordinate amount of private aircraft going in and out of Aspen this afternoon. The flight pattern is congested.' This is something that started after 1 or 2 o'clock, because my friends got to Aspen in the morning without any problem."

After an hour on hold at Denver International Airport, the plane finally lifted off for what is usually a 45-minute flight.

"I fly in and out of Aspen a lot," Lupo said. "I had a window seat, and I knew that when we were way to the west of the Western Slope, we were being screwed around. We circled around the Western Slope for at least a half-hour. The pilot then said, 'We thought we could land, but there are still a lot of planes on the ground trying to get out.'"

According to Lupo, the plane circled around the region for another 45 minutes when the pilot came back on the public-address system and said, "Well, folks, (air-traffic controllers) have told us they want us to fly to New Mexico and back. But we don't have enough fuel, so we're going back to Denver."

From that point — Lupo believes the plane was somewhere in southwest Colorado — it took 45 minutes to get back to Denver, she said.

"That lets you know how far away we were," she said. "There's no telling how much fuel had been wasted."

As the plane sat in Denver for refueling, passengers were made aware of another possible delay. But the postponement was checked at the pilot's insistence, Lupo said.

"He got us back into the air by quarter-to-6," she said. "A little after 6:30, we were allowed to leave the plane in Aspen."

The terminal in Aspen was a chaotic scene, she said, filled with passengers who had issues getting into Aspen and others who were experiencing delays in trying to leave. There also were luggage-related problems, she said.

"There must have been 500 people there," Lupo said. "I ran into someone I knew who had been on a flight from Dallas. They were diverted to Grand Junction. He had been told the same thing by his pilot, that it was because of the private aircraft."

Ironically, Lupo said, the plane she and her daughter originally boarded arrived in Aspen 15 or 20 minutes ahead of the plane they switched to.

The three commercial airlines serving Aspen had 33 incoming flights scheduled Saturday, which translates into an estimated 2,300 visitors, Bill Tomcich, president of reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass, said last week. The 33 flights Saturday represent a holiday-season peak and will be repeated Jan. 3.

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport Director John Kinney said Sunday he would investigate the causes today behind Saturday afternoon's airport issues.

On Friday, Kinney reported 30 private-aircraft diversions to other airports during the morning because of visibility issues. Commercial service wasn't affected Friday.

But the weather issues Friday had a ripple affect Saturday because of demand from corporate jets trying to get to Aspen that couldn't fly in Friday, Kinney said.

Private aircraft operators trying to leave Aspen on Saturday, ahead of Sunday's snowstorm, also contributed to the problem, he said.

Generally, the issue with commercial service Saturday afternoon can be attributed to "private aviation congestion," Kinney said.

"Saturday was an incredibly busy day with aircraft coming in and (other planes) immediately being launched out," said Kinney, who is only two weeks into his job as Aspen-Pitkin County Airport's director of aviation. "The bad weather during the previous few days created a pent-up demand."

The Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic controllers do not give priority to commercial or private aircraft, he said.

"They will say it's first-come, first-served," he said. "Listening to several passengers and speaking with the airlines — and considering the effect on the Aspen economy — we need to become more predictable during these somewhat-unpredictable events. I'm going to make this my priority."

Kinney said he believes the Aspen airport once required private aircraft to reserve a "window of time" for leaving or flying into the area during the busy tourist seasons. He said it's his understanding that the requirement is no longer in effect and that he would explore the reasons why it was discontinued.

Lupo, describing herself as a "frequently abused flier," said United Airlines has not offered her a travel voucher or any compensation for Saturday's trouble.

andre@aspentimes.com

WEEKEND TRAVEL WOES

Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and a local liaison to the airline industry, issued the following statement Sunday night concerning the weekend congestion involving the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport:

Friday, Dec. 26: A total of 28 inbound flights were scheduled. An estimated 22 were able to land at ASE. The final four evening nonstop flights from Chicago, Houston, LAX and SFO were all diverted to GJT, and the final two flights from Denver were cancelled. I am aware of one of those diversions to GJT that landed late after all ground-transportation resources had been exhausted and was forced to make a post-midnight hop over to Denver.

Saturday, Dec. 27: A total of 34 inbound flights were scheduled (the most of any single day since winter 1997-98). Despite extensive air traffic delays and several flights being forced to divert to GJT and even Colorado Springs to refuel, 28 commercial flights ultimately landed at ASE. Two were diverted to GJT, and just four inbound flights were actually cancelled, one of which was reinstated by Delta to operate from MSP today. There was also an outbound flight to Chicago yesterday that was forced to be cancelled due to the aircraft being disabled by a minor mishap on the ground here at ASE.

Sunday, Dec. 28 (as of 7:50 p.m.): A total of 32 inbound flights were scheduled. So far, 19 of those flights have been able to successfully land at ASE, three were diverted to GJT earlier today and just four flights have actually cancelled thus far (three Republic operated Q400s from Denver and American’s inbound nonstop from LAX). I should point out that so far, SkyWest has not yet cancelled one single inbound flight yet today, and there are still six more inbound flights that are hoping to be able to land at ASE between now and 11 p.m.

But all hasn’t been smooth by any stretch of the imagination, and there’s no denying that some of our guests both inbound and outbound have been in for some pretty extraordinary travel adventures. The facilities at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, especially the secured holding area, have truly been pushed beyond their limits. But the airlines are working really hard at recovering from this weekend’s irregular operations and are doing their best to move folks as quickly but as safely as possible.

Thank you all very much for your patience and understanding.

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