Blizzard strands travelers; skiers rejoice |

Blizzard strands travelers; skiers rejoice

Abigail Eagye
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN A snowstorm Wednesday that closed Aspen’s airport and caused airlines to cancel Denver flights is a mixed blessing for the resort’s holiday skiers. “We would never, ever, complain about snow,” said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle. “Anytime it snows, it’s good. It messes with transportation in and out, [but] people will find a way to get here.”Hanle predicted a “banner holiday” for Aspen skiers. And despite canceled flights that kept an estimated 1,000 people from arriving in town Wednesday, he said the ripple effects can only be good for future bookings as news of a Colorado blizzard spreads through the media and via word of mouth.”This snowstorm was just perfect timing,” he said.

Perfect for Skico, but not necessarily for Aspen merchants.Because of visibility Wednesday, only one flight landed in Aspen, and by 8 a.m., United Airlines, Aspen’s biggest carrier, canceled all of its Denver flights for the day. Further complicating the situation, Peña Boulevard, which connects Denver International Airport to the city, closed Wednesday as well. An operator for Colorado Mountain Express, which ferries people between DIA and the mountains, said the company’s vans had “shut down because there’s no one to carry.”At Aspen’s Sardy Field, only 11 of 20 scheduled commercial flights landed Tuesday, bringing the two-day total of canceled or diverted flights to 30 out of 40 scheduled.By Wednesday evening, United had scrubbed all of its Denver flights through noon today, possibly longer, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass.Wednesday afternoon, Tomcich predicted the 1,000 travelers who wouldn’t arrive that day likely would only be delayed a day or two.”Aspen travelers are very savvy, and they eventually find a way to get here,” he said.An hour later, after learning United had extended its cancellations into today, he said the situation was “way worse” than he originally expected.Losing one day of travel posed problems for stand-by travelers facing a solid week of near-capacity flights. Tomcich said most of those travelers likely would find a way to Aspen, perhaps by flying to nearby airports and renting cars.But losing two days so close to the holidays could increase competition for stand-by flights, making it impossible for some to find open seats.”It’s going to be twice as bad as one day, at least, and that’s pretty bad,” he said. “There are a lot of people who just flat out aren’t going to be able to get here.”

After canceling flights, United offered to waive fees for passengers who needed to change their flight plans, and a number of Aspen hotels and lodges also agreed to work with guests to change bookings, Tomcich said.

But in light of a second day of cancellations, he said, that might not be enough to resuscitate holiday plans in Colorado.

“There’s no question in my mind that a lot of people are going to have to cancel their entire trips or delay them by several days to get here,” he said.Most of those people paid nonrefundable deposits for their hotel rooms, Tomcich said, so it doesn’t necessarily hurt the town’s lodging bottom line. But he said it’s too early to quantify what effect the storm could have on other local businesses who were expecting an influx of travelers for Christmas.Tomcich said a number of Aspen hotels and lodges are also allowing guests to move their dates, depending on availability of other rooms, and he anticipated many hotels would work with patrons who pre-paid to reschedule their vacations without added cost if necessary.The winter storm dumped in southwestern Colorado before turning into a full-scale blizzard as it hit the Front Range and eastern plains. Local ski areas reported 6 to 9 inches of new snow Wednesday afternoon, from the previous 24 hours, while Colorado’s Wolf Creek Ski area saw 3 feet in three days.

Aspen/Snowmass can’t boast Wolf Creek’s totals, but Hanle said the mountains still have great conditions. In the past seven days, Snowmass has seen 20 inches of new snow, Aspen Mountain has seen 17 inches, and Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk have piled up 13 and 11.5 inches, respectively.The blizzard prompted Gov. Bill Owens to declare a state of emergency Wednesday afternoon and to activate the National Guard to help stranded motorists, with interstates 70 and 25 closed between Denver and the Kansas and New Mexico borders.For information on fee waivers or to change flights on United Airlines: Call (800) UNITED-1 or a travel agency; Updated snow reports for Aspen ski areas: http://www.aspensnowmass.comThe Associated Press contributed to this story.

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