Airlines vow to try harder next winter
ASPEN Top executives of United Express and SkyWest airlines on Tuesday pledged to improve upon what many people regarded as a disastrous performance at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport last winter.SkyWest, which operates the United Express flights in Aspen, will beef up its staff, have a better plan in place to handle flight cancellations and keep customers better informed when problems arise, officials told the Pitkin County commissioners.”I want to reinforce how important Aspen is to United,” said Alex Marren, vice president of operations for United Express.Eighteen officials from the two airlines were in Aspen to smooth relations with local officials. They brainstormed with representatives of the business community Monday on ways to work together to improve customer service. They outlined their plans for the county commissioners Tuesday.Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the business community’s liaison with the airlines, said it was unprecedented for top airline officials to make the commitments to improve service like they did Tuesday – at least in his 12 years in his post.Tough winter SkyWest started operating United Express flights in the Aspen market in April 2006 and used the CRJ-700 aircraft during its first winter of operations. There were numerous cancellations early in the winter when the barometric pressure dropped lower than the level at which the plane was supposed to fly.SkyWest worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and airplane manufacturer Bombardier to solve the issue without compromising safety, said Chip Childs, SkyWest’s chief operating officer. The plane was certified to fly at lower barometric levels.The barometric pressure issue will be a “nonevent” during the 2007-08 ski season, Childs boldly predicted.SkyWest wants to build the CRJ-700’s credibility with the community because there is no doubt it is the best aircraft for the tough mountain airport, said Dave Faddis, SkyWest’s director of flying, training and standards. The carrier is considering a demonstration day when Aspen residents and business officials can tour a plane at the airport and ask airline officials questions.SkyWest and United officials acknowledged several times in the meeting with the commissioners that it was a “tough” winter and they even seemed apologetic.”We did have unprecedented challenges and difficulties,” Marren said.But SkyWest officials also insisted their company’s performance was still high and that many of the problems that canceled flights were “uncontrollable.” Faddis said the carrier completed 99 percent of its 3,538 flights from April 2006 through last month, when just “controllable” factors such as mechanical failures are reviewed.Even when factoring in uncontrollable factors like weather and the barometric pressure problem, the completion rate was still 89 percent, Faddis said.There were 335 canceled flights in and out of Aspen last winter that affected about 15,000 passengers on all airlines. United Express is the biggest carrier at the airport.In addition to barometric pressure problems, bad weather plagued the airline. Blizzards that hit Denver immediately before and after Christmas canceled several packed flights to Aspen.Hiring larger staffSkyWest outlined several steps it will take on issues it can control.”Our No. 1 priority is to stabilize the work force,” said Jim Boyd, SkyWest’s vice president of customer service.SkyWest has 80 workers in Aspen right now. It hopes to have a staff of 100, and possibly more, for the ski season. Last winter, chronic worker shortages plagued the carrier, as it did many businesses. Its staff was down to 69 local workers who were supplemented by a dozen employees commuting from the Grand Junction airport.”Through a chain of events, we lost a lot of talented, capable people,” Boyd said of last winter’s staffing crisis.The carrier has beefed up recruiting efforts and will “revisit” its pay and benefit package to make itself more attractive.Childs noted that the employee shortage is tough to solve because of the high cost of housing in the Roaring Fork Valley. Commissioner Rachel Richards said the airline should consider investing in affordable housing as “fundamental infrastructure.”The airline might again supplement its staff in Aspen with workers willing to make the trip from Grand Junction.Dealing with adversityOther priorities are improving baggage delivery and effectively executing “Plan B” when flights cannot land in Aspen because of weather.Childs said passengers on Aspen’s flights average nearly three times the weight of baggage as passengers in SkyWest’s other markets. Sometimes conditions force flights to lighten their load, so baggage doesn’t arrive with its owner.Boyd said SkyWest wants to ease the problems that creates by urging customers with high amounts of baggage to ship it in advance to the property where the are staying.Internally, the air carrier wants to work with its hubs to make sure baggage arrives no later than the next morning, if it doesn’t arrive on the flight.SkyWest also is exploring alternatives to sending passengers to Aspen by bus from Denver when snowstorms force cancellations. And, the company is exploring sending flights to Grand Junction as an alternative, Boyd said.When problems inevitably arise, Marren said, improved communication with customers is a priority for United Express. SkyWest will add a “lobby assistant” who will risk mingling with customers in the lobby to answer questions and point out the next available customer service representatives.Boyd noted that SkyWest has grown its business through excellence in service and that it would find solutions to the problems in Aspen: “I know we may have fallen short last winter,” Boyd said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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