Aspen holiday travelers wait, wait and wait
December 29, 2015
The patience of travelers at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was greatly tested over the weekend.
On Saturday, passengers waited up to four hours in the boarding area and nearly three hours while aboard commercial aircraft, security lines stretched outside, and eight travelers slept at the facility overnight because of flight delays and cancellations.
Airport Director John Kinney said a litany of factors played into the holiday weekend's travel aches, which were being addressed Monday. Among them were a shortage of workers with the Transportation Security Administration, mechanical issues with airplanes, and weather-induced delays that choked commercial carriers' flight schedules at such major hub airports as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Houston.
One traveler, David Aggy, said he and his girlfriend waited nearly three hours aboard a United aircraft before it departed from Aspen. The wait lasted 168 minutes, according to flight data.
"Strangely, people were fairly calm about it for a while," he said, "until about the third time they said it will be a half an hour before we take off."
Aggy, who owns a home in Aspen, said travel woes are to be expected at the Aspen airport. But watching private jets depart and land, while commercial travelers were stranded on the airport apron, some of them with their crying children, didn't sit well with him and others.
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"This is the busiest day of the year," he said. "I get it. But what people couldn't understand was private plane after private plane …"
The Federal Aviation Administration oversees traffic controllers who determine when planes can land and depart.
Kinney said the FAA has told him numerous times that it gives priority to aircraft with the most passengers, whether commercial or private.
"And there's far more people in commercial," he said.
The Aspen air-traffic controller routed questions to an FAA spokesman who said capacity issues at the airport were the issue, not preferential treatment.
"Air traffic at the Aspen Airport exceeded capacity of the airport over the weekend and all flights were impacted and many were delayed," said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer in an email to The Aspen Times. "Private aircraft did not receive priority handling."
Kinney and other airport officials were there Saturday and Sunday monitoring lines and keeping passengers apprised. At one point, a family with a child with special needs asked to be removed from one of the airplanes on the tarmac. The airport was about to accommodate them before air-traffic control confirmed the flight would be taking off within five minutes, Kinney said.
"Those people sitting two or three hours were probably at their wits' end," Kinney said.
At one point Saturday, 10 aircraft were on the ground, Kinney said.
Twenty-five of the 27 commercial arrivals Saturday were impacted, with five cancellations and 20 delays. Commercial flight delays and cancellations weren't restricted to just Saturday; Sunday and Monday also saw numerous flight setbacks, flight statistics show.
Both outgoing Delta Air Lines flights were delayed Saturday, and two of four American Airlines flights were delayed and another one was canceled, according to flight data.
United Airlines flights, whether inbound or outbound, were plagued with problems. Of United's 16 scheduled outbound flights that day, 14 were delayed and two were canceled. The first United flight of the day, scheduled to arrive in Denver at 1:20 p.m., didn't land until 8 p.m.
Aggy's flight didn't land in San Francisco until 5:39 p.m., nearly three hours after the scheduled arrival of 2:51 p.m.
United found lodge rooms for about 20 passengers to sleep in Saturday night, while the airport allowed eight of them to sleep at the facility overnight.
"We had overnight eight visitors who chose not to find a hotel room given the high occupancy," Kinney said.
Waits in the security lines were long, as well, with passengers trickling outside the airport's front doors, Kinney said.
"We had 300 people waiting to get through the TSA into the passenger boarding-lounge area, and we were pushing 600 people in the entire area," he said.
Aspen fire code has a cap of 316 people in the waiting area; the airport keeps it at 280 as a "comfort zone," Kinney said.
"It's pretty tight in there," he said.
The airport also recently started a $600,000 terminal expansion that will enlarge the boarding space from 4,200 square feet to 6,325. It also calls for expanding the capacity from 280 passengers to 421.
Aggy, who has visited Aspen since he was a child, said before he bought his home here, airport service was "one of my biggest concerns, besides homes here being three times the price at Park City (Utah). Southwest to Salt Lake City is one-third of the price (to fly to Aspen), and it lands on time. Utah is looking better every year."