Official reports smoother weekend for Aspen airport activity

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times
Aubree Dallas |

Things went much better for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport on Saturday and Sunday compared with the previous weekend despite the continued busy travel period for commercial and corporate jets, a local tourism official said.

Bill Tomcich, president of reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass and the community’s liaison to the airline industry, said 65 inbound and 65 outbound commercial flights were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. As of 5 p.m. Sunday, there had been only one cancellation, a late-Saturday outbound flight, he said.

“On Saturday, there were some delays — quite a few, in fact,” Tomcich said. “Everything has been completed relatively on schedule (on Sunday).”

He said Saturday’s delays were the result of a combination of heavy air traffic and weather, with snowfall throughout the region. However, Tomcich noted that local weather forecasters reported that Aspen was at the center of a “doughnut hole” of decent weather Saturday, improving airport flight activity.

“The delays appeared to build throughout the day,” he said. “For most of the morning, flights were relatively on time.”

Still, the weekend situation was much calmer than that of Dec. 27-28, when 66 inbound flights from the three airlines serving Aspen were scheduled but only 51 landed at the airport because of cancellations and diversions, according to officials.

The cause of the airport’s post-Christmas weekend problems was a confluence of factors, airport officials have said. First, there was pent-up demand from corporate pilots wanting to leave the airport on the afternoon of Dec. 27 following visibility issues and snow showers the day before. They also were trying to get out of the area during a daylong period of clear weather prior to snowstorms that were predicted to hit the area Dec. 28.

Other issues included the crowded airways throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Christmas Day, which was not a busy travel day, fell on a Thursday, pushing off a lot of commercial- and private-jet travel to the weekend. The 34 commercial flights scheduled to fly into and out of Aspen on Dec. 27 were the most of any single day since the winter of 1997-98. In all, 312 aircraft arrived or departed Aspen that day, an unusually high number that Tomcich described last week as an aberration.

Following numerous complaints about delays lasting several hours and other problems from commercial passengers who were affected by the congested runways and airways of Aspen, Airport Director John Kinney and Tomcich met Tuesday with the local Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic-control manager and others with a stake in ensuring smooth airport operations. Representatives of the airport’s fixed-base operator, which manages corporate jet activity, as well as Aspen Skiing Co. participated in the discussions.

Though no simple solution to congestion on busy travel days was found, officials said everyone at the table agreed that better communication about flight schedules between the airport, airlines and private-jet operators could help reduce the likelihood of a similarly troublesome travel day.

While flight schedules were closer to normal Saturday and Sunday, Tomcich pointed out that he personally witnessed extreme gridlock for motorists using Interstate 70 between Vail and Idaho Springs on Saturday.

He said he spent three hours driving from Copper Mountain to Vail on Saturday afternoon, a drive that’s estimated to take 20 to 25 minutes with good weather, light traffic and average speeds.

“I-70 was moving at a walking speed, along both directions,” Tomcich said. “It was crazy.”

Starting today, tourism activity in Aspen and Snowmass Village slows down for a short spell, he added. Hotel and lodge occupancy rates are expected to fall in the 60 to 75 percent range this week, increasing daily.

Occupancy picks up during Gay Ski Week, Jan. 11 to 18. Sold-out room nights are expected for part of the Winter X Games period, Jan. 21 to 25.