Airlines step up efforts as Aspen weather fouls travel |

Airlines step up efforts as Aspen weather fouls travel

Janet Urquhart
Aspen, CO Colorado

Sam Shrout lounges at the Aspen airport Thursday afternoon while waiting for a flight home to Santa Barbara, Calif. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” It may mean a bus ride or other delays, but holiday travelers bound for Aspen are getting to town despite diverted and canceled flights, as the airlines work to make good on a promise they made last summer ” improve upon last winter’s dismal service to the resort.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, nine of the day’s scheduled 24 inbound flights had been canceled because of low visiblity in Aspen, but SkyWest, which operates regional service into Aspen for both Delta and United Airlines, was scrambling to provide alternate transportation for some of the travelers.

“It’s better than I’ve seen in a long time in terms of the efforts being made,” said Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry. “It certainly is indicative of a greater effort than I have witnessed from the airlines to take care of our guests in a very long time.”

Though snowfall was light in Aspen, the storm caused delays out of Denver International Airport and led United Airlines to cancel 145 flights into and out of Denver. Most of the cancellations didn’t affect Aspen, Tomcich said. Of the flights that didn’t make it into Denver, 14 were from Aspen’s top 25 markets, he said.

By Thursday evening, it appeared nine of the day’s 24 scheduled flights would land in Aspen, while 12 were canceled and three were diverted to Grand Junction and their passengers bused to Aspen. Two of those buses were then sent to DIA carrying outbound passengers. Travelers on a canceled flight out of Salt Lake City were also bused to town.

Passengers on canceled Aspen-bound flights from Chicago and Phoenix were booked on the next available flights.

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Skywest also flew an empty plane from Denver to Los Angeles to pick up passengers waiting for a delayed flight into Aspen, Tomcich said.

A year ago, holiday air travel into Aspen virtually came to a halt when back-to-back weekend blizzards shut down DIA for days at a stretch. This year, travelers have been inconvenienced rather than stuck.

“It’s a far cry from a year ago when people simply couldn’t get here,” Tomcich said.

And, a year ago, the airlines simply canceled flights and waited until the weather lifted to pick up the pieces, he noted.

But, top executives with United Express and SkyWest met with Pitkin County commissioners last summer and promised to improve upon what many regarded as a disastrous performance at the local airport last winter, when 335 canceled flights in and out of Aspen affected about 15,000 passengers. In all, 18 officials with the two airlines were in Aspen last July to smooth relations with local officials. They promised a better plan to handle cancellations and keep customers better informed when problems arise.

They’ve been put to the test this week.

On a snowy Christmas Day (Tuesday), only four out of 22 scheduled flights were able to land in Aspen. Four were diverted to Grand Junction and another was sent to Denver as there were no more buses available in Grand Junction, according to Tomcich.

Skywest can’t divert all of its flights to Grand Junction ” roughly a two-hour drive from Aspen ” because it can’t arrange to have enough buses on the ground to handle all of the passengers. One planeload of people requires two buses, he said.

“They’re definitely stepping up the effort to the extent it’s reasonably possible,” Tomcich said. “With the volume of flights coming in, it’s not going to be possible to provide alternative transportation for everyone that’s affected.”

Clear weather on Wednesday allowed all but one of 24 scheduled flights to land. Wednesday and Thursday were the peak travel days leading into the weekend before the New Year’s holiday and Aspen accommodations are essentially booked solid for the weekend. So were Thursday’s canceled flights, Tomcich said.

He took the relative lack of complaints on Thursday, though, as a positive sign. Tomcich said he hopes travelers are noticing an improved effort by the airlines.

“By virtue of the fact that we at Stay Aspen Snowmass have a lot of passengers traveling [Thursday] and have received virtually no phone calls from distressed travelers so far is something that I take as a good sign that communications are working and passengers are moving, albeit delayed,” Tomcich wrote an e-mail.

Tomcich said he’s welcoming feedback on the airlines’ efforts from holiday travelers.

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