New ‘Plan B’ when flights cannot land | AspenTimes.com

New ‘Plan B’ when flights cannot land

ASPEN ” United Express is developing a better “Plan B” for times when bad weather prevents aircraft from landing at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

SkyWest Airlines, which operates most of the airport’s United Express service, will divert flights from Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Grand Junction rather than Denver whenever possible if they cannot land in Aspen, said Marisa Snow, SkyWest’s director of corporate communications.

“It will be on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “The intent is to use Grand Junction for those long hauls.”

The change in strategy is part of an initiative by SkyWest and United to improve service in Aspen. There were 335 canceled flights into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport last winter ” often because of poor flying conditions in Aspen or Denver.

When nonstop flights couldn’t land in Aspen, they were diverted to Denver. Dumping more passengers in Denver added to the confusion and frustration because services were already inundated with passengers of canceled flights between Denver and Aspen.

When possible, passengers were loaded on buses to make a long drive into the mountains, often in treacherous conditions.

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SkyWest has facilities at the Grand Junction airport, but it didn’t have a way of transporting its customers to Aspen last year. That changed. A contract with a ground transportation company was expected to be signed any day, Snow said this week. That will make two or three state-of-the-art buses available for transporting passengers to Aspen.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen/Snowmass and the local business community’s liaison with the airlines, said SkyWest’s move is significant. A number wasn’t available on how many of the 335 canceled flights between December and April last winter involved diversions to Denver, he said.

“It created havoc when flights were diverted to Denver when Denver was having its own problems,” Tomcich said.

Diverting to Grand Junction avoids the mess in Denver and shortens the drive for customers of flights that cannot fly in. The trip to Denver International Airport can stretch to five hours or more on a bus in snowy conditions. The drive from Grand Junction is about two hours, and it doesn’t require travel over high mountain passes.

Air Wisconsin, a previous operator of United Express service in Aspen, tried diverting flights to Grand Junction with mixed success during the 1999-2000 ski season, Tomcich said. Most of its service was between Denver and Aspen, so using Grand Junction didn’t always make sense.

Now, the volume of nonstop service from major markets outside of Denver has grown to the point where a second diversion point is worthwhile, Tomcich said.

The number of nonstop flights is growing this winter, so the potential for diverted flights also is increasing. There will be three nonstops from Chicago during weekdays and four on weekends. There will be two nonstop flights daily from Los Angeles. There will be one flight from San Francisco on Friday and Sundays and two on Saturdays.

That means there will be five nonstops daily into Aspen from those markets on weekdays and eight on Saturdays.

A better diversion plan is one of several ways SkyWest hopes to improve service to Aspen this winter. The carrier will increase the number of self-service check-in kiosks at the Aspen airport, Snow said. There were three last winter and possibly as many as 10 this winter.

SkyWest also created a lobby assistant position to help answer passengers’ questions. It’s looking into adding a second lobby assistant position.

The carrier also secured employee housing for the season and hopes to retain staff throughout the winter.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.