Big snowstorm grounds, delays Aspen flights over holiday weekend

More than 100 flights canceled or diverted as visitors try to get in, out of Aspen airport

Travelers exit the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport after landing in town Monday on a snowy afternoon. Flights have been canceled due to inclement weather through the holiday weekend. On Sunday, only six of the scheduled flights made it into Aspen/Pitkin County airport. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The euphoria of powder skiing since Aspen got pelted with a major snowstorm Friday is getting some competition from the frustrations of holiday travel.

As the snow keeps dumping — Aspen Highlands reported 30 inches of the white stuff in 72 hours leading up to 7:17 a.m. Monday, according to Aspen Skiing Co. — commercial flight delays, diversions and cancellations have plagued travelers during the peak holiday season.

Sunday, for instance, included more than 50 commercial flight cancellations and a dozen delays for scheduled inbound and outbound flights at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, according to FlightAware.

“Our runways and taxiways, we’ve kept those clear,” said airport director Dan Bartholomew. “It’s the snow in the air and it’s the visibility, and the winds are also an issue.”

On Sunday, six of the scheduled 37 arrivals made it to Aspen, according to calculations from Bill Tomcich, an air travel consultant to Fly Aspen Snowmass, which is an alliance among Aspen Skiing Co., Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Snowmass Tourism.

Another six Aspen-bound flights were diverted — that included two United flights rerouted from Chicago to Grand Junction; one United flight from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska; an American flight from Austin, Texas, to Grand Junction; an American flight from Dallas to Grand Junction; and a Delta flight from Atlanta to Grand Junction. The remaining 25 inbound flights were canceled.

Leaving Aspen was just as difficult, with 31 commercial cancellations and five flights that were able to depart but with delays of at least an hour, according to Tomcich.

“(Sunday) was a mess and the winds were the culprit,” Tomcich said, noting he recorded gusts as high as 51 miles per hour in the Fryingpan River Valley — which is directly below the flight path to Aspen — on Sunday.

As of 5:30 p.m. Monday, commercial flights accounted for 43 cancellations (though some were diverted), according to FlightAware. There had been one arrival, at 1 p.m. from Denver via United, and one departure, a 3:35 p.m. flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the airport’s website.

Nationally, the omicron variant of COVID-19 has impacted airline flight crews, pilots and personnel, and more than 1,000 flights were canceled in the U.S. on Monday largely because of the virus, but also due to inclement weather, according to published reports.

The disruption to the flights prompted Dr. Anthony Fauci, during an interview Monday on MSNBC, to call for vaccination requirements to fly domestically.

“If you’re making a requirement for vaccination for people to get on planes who are coming into the country, that’s understandable. You don’t want to bring more cases into the country,” said Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But if you’re talking about requiring vaccination to get on a plane domestically, that is just another one of the requirements that I think is reasonable to consider.”

Locally, the variant isn’t factoring into the flight woes.

“This has all been weather related,” Bartholomew said. “The other issue that comes into account is that a lot of crews time out and can only fly so many hours because they have been delayed.”

Federal Aviation Administration regulations updated in 2014 restrict flight crews to working a nine- to 14-hour day; it was 16 hours under the previous rules. As well, the number of hours of actual flight time ranges from eight to nine hours, and pilots are required to a break of at least 10 hours between shifts.

The weather also hasn’t been kind to ground travel locally.

Partial or full road closures at the Shale Bluffs section of Highway 82 (mile marker 36), Smith Hill Way, Brush Creek Road, Watson Divide Road have occurred since Friday due to traffic accidents, according to the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

A driver for Aspen Star Limo said Monday he had driven to Denver International Airport three times in the past three days because of flight cancellations in Aspen.

“The Aspen airport has had more delays and cancellations than they’ve been on time,” said the driver, who declined to provide his full name. “It costs a lot of money and it’s a lot of time waiting for planes that are not coming.”