Is Northwest coming back to town?
ASPEN Northwest Airlines, a key provider of winter service to Aspen for a decade before it pulled out of the market amid financial struggles, emerged from bankruptcy Thursday with plans to introduce new, fuel-efficient jets that might make it a local player once again.”We are engaged in discussions with their flight-performance engineers right now to see if their new aircraft might be able to service Aspen,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.Early indications suggest the new regional jetliners are capable of flying in and out of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, but don’t plan on booking a nonstop flight between Aspen and Northwest’s Minneapolis-St. Paul hub just yet.The real question is, can the aircraft take off from Aspen with a full fuel load for the 802-mile flight, plus a sufficient number of passengers and luggage to make the service profitable?”The preliminary results don’t look promising,” Tomcich said.The existing airport runway probably isn’t long enough to allow the jets to take off with a full load, but the proposed extension of the runway to accommodate more types of regional jets may be just what Northwest needs to return to the Aspen market, he said.Pitkin County has approved the runway extension as part of a master plan for the airport, pending an ongoing environmental review. That process, along with conceptual designs for the project, are expected to be completed in mid-2008.The airport is closed through June 7 for a runway resurfacing project, but that work does not include extending the runway.Northwest served Aspen during the winter from 1996 through the 2005-06 season, with links to both Minneapolis and Memphis, and the airline provided summer service during some of those years, as well.”During the winter, it was a very important alternative to the only other service we had for most of that time, which was United,” Tomcich said.Northwest filed for bankruptcy in September 2005, putting its service for the 2005-06 winter in question, but it ultimately followed through on its commitment to serve the resort that winter.As part of its reorganization, it ended its lease of the AVRO RJ85s it used for the Aspen service, leaving the airline without a jet that could serve the mountain resort. The RJ85s were expensive to operate.If the airport extends its runway, Northwest may look favorably at reinstituting service between Aspen and Minneapolis.”That route was a very profitable flight for Northwest Airlines,” Tomcich said. “They ran anywhere from two to four flights daily during the winter.”Northwest departed bankruptcy protection after a 20-month reorganization aimed at making the nation’s fifth-largest carrier competitive. The airline has slashed its debt by $4.2 million, cut $400 million a year in the cost of its fleet, and trimmed unprofitable routes.It will be the first North American airline to take Boeing’s new 787 “Dreamliner” as part of its new fleet, over the next two years.Its new regional jets will make it possible to fly routes that weren’t busy enough for its larger planes, according to Northwest. They’ll be flown by Northwest subsidiaries Mesaba Airlines and Compass Airlines.Mesaba operated the old Northwest Airlink service between Aspen and Minneapolis.New regional jet service to Aspen has been on the minds of resort officials this week, with the expected announcement of new destinations to be served by Frontier Airlines. Frontier, however, is still awaiting safety approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, forcing it to hold off on marketing the new routes, which it is keeping under wraps until the approval is in place. Industry observers expect Aspen will be among Frontier’s new markets.The Associated Press contributed to this report. Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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