Aspen air travelers benefit from ‘Plan B’
ASPEN ” United Express’ “Plan B” for when bad weather prevents aircraft from landing at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has become “Plan A” all too often this winter as the snow keeps dumping.
SkyWest Airlines, which operates most of the airport’s United Express service, has diverted an untold number of flights from Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Grand Junction rather than Denver when they could not land in Aspen, said Marissa Snow, SkyWest’s director of corporate communications.
Near daily snowfall during the past two weeks has forced pilots to divert to Walker Field in Grand Junction more than other times this season.
“We’ve run more buses so far in February than we did in January,” Snow said.
With record snowfall this season, traveling in and out of Aspen has been challenging to say the least.
“Ideal ski weather is not ideal travel weather,” Snow said, adding that planes can’t fly with low visibility. “We are a safety-first carrier.”
Planes were diverted and delayed coming in and going out of Aspen sporadically this week, as snow fell every day except Tuesday.
Dave Ulane, assistant aviation director at the Aspen airport, said flights were suspended Wednesday afternoon because of a low ceiling.
“It’s the same old story, different day,” he said. “It sounds like a broken record.
“It’s been a very challenging winter,” Ulane continued. “It is kind of a double-edged sword. … Snow is good, snow is bad.”
On Monday, 16 flights were canceled, with only six out of 22 scheduled flights able to land in Aspen, said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the local business community’s liaison to the airlines.
Asked how many flights have been canceled or diverted since Jan. 28, when the snow began falling consistently and delayed Winter X Games’ visitors, Tomcich joked, “I’ve lost count.”
“No jet operator has had to deal with this much snow [in the past],” Tomcich said. “But the impacts appear to be relatively small.”
Snow said SkyWest had an 81.8 percent completion rate for December in Aspen. In January, the completion rate was 85.6 percent. The past two weeks, completion rates have hovered around 70 percent.
Those high percentages are reflective of the lessons learned last year when there were no contingency or diversion plans.
A year ago, holiday air travel into Aspen virtually came to a halt when back-to-back weekend blizzards shut down Denver International Airport for days at a time. This year, travelers have been inconvenienced rather than stuck.
“It’s actually been going well because if they can’t get up here by aircraft they are getting up here in a bus,” Ulane said.
A year ago the airlines simply canceled flights and waited until the weather lifted to pick up the pieces.
But top executives with United Express and SkyWest 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.
Airline executives promised a better plan to handle cancellations and keep customers better informed when problems arise.
And that promise appears to have been kept. Snow said passengers are better informed on their travel options through SkyWest’s 118 employees in Aspen.
“Everyone at SkyWest is totally tuned in to Aspen,” Tomcich said. “It’s a high-priority market.”
SkyWest has facilities at the Grand Junction airport, but it didn’t have a way of transporting its customers to Aspen from there last year. But that changed when SkyWest was able to secure a contract with a ground transportation company that offers two or three state-of-the-art buses available for transporting passengers to Aspen.
Tom Ball, spokesman for Colorado Mountain Express, said his ground transportation company has seen only a small spike in business as a result of the airport’s woes. That’s because 90 percent of CME’s business is pre-booked and focuses on travelers at DIA and Eagle/Vail Airport.
“We look at the Aspen airport challenges as incremental business,” he said, adding it’s far more reliable to fly into Denver and take a CME van to Aspen, or fly into Eagle and do the same.
“People want that wonderful connection in and out of Sardy Field and sometimes they roll the dice and they lose,” Ball said. “Everybody says, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the big snow year, let’s celebrate.’ But it’s not a celebration when you’ve been sitting at the airport for three days.”
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