SkyWest perfects Aspen diversion plan | AspenTimes.com

SkyWest perfects Aspen diversion plan

Published: Rustin Gudim Special to The Aspen Times

ASPEN – SkyWest Airlines hopes it has perfected a system for transporting airline passengers to Aspen by bus when aircraft cannot land because of bad weather this winter.

The air carrier got lots of unplanned practice of its diversion plans in October and November, when a new navigational aid installed by the Federal Aviation Administration suffered mechanical difficulties. Numerous flights weren’t able to land in Aspen during poor weather because a device called a localizer was out of commission. SkyWest operates the United service in Aspen.

“We were in a hopeless situation,” SkyWest President and Chief Operating Officer Chip Childs said Tuesday.

The airline assessed what it could do with GPS systems while the localizer was out of commission.

“The answer was, you know what, you can’t really do it safely,” Childs said.

So arriving aircraft were diverted to Eagle, Grand Junction or back to Denver. Numerous departing flights were delayed or canceled, and passengers missed connections and had to rebook flights.

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Childs said his staff spent a lot of time behind the scenes encouraging the FAA to fix the problems in Aspen. The only silver lining, he said, is the problem arose and was fixed before Thanksgiving.

Between 35 and 40 percent of the arriving flights that couldn’t land in Aspen during the localizer incident were diverted to Eagle County Airport, said Heidi Kowar, Aspen station manager for SkyWest.

That airport, roughly 70 miles away from Aspen, will be used more in the future as a diversion location, Childs said. However, the bad weather that affects operations at Aspen often affects them in Eagle as well, he said.

Grand Junction’s airport will also be used as a diversion point, but that requires a bus trip to Aspen almost twice as long as from Eagle. Rifle isn’t an option because it doesn’t have commercial facilities, Childs said.

SkyWest and United have signed contracts with ground transportation companies to haul passengers from Eagle, Grand Junction and Denver.

“We’ve invested a lot of dollars and programs to make sure that if things don’t work right from a weather perspective that our busing program is adequate,” Childs said.

Kowar said some passengers that were aware of the localizer problem tried to get on earlier flights into or out of Aspen when bad weather was forecast. United Airlines agreed to waive its $50 fee for same-day standby during the localizer problems, she said.

SkyWest is negotiating with United to try to waive the fee in Aspen whenever weather presents a problem, Kowar said. If successful, that would encourage more passengers to try to get on earlier flights when the weather is expected to create a problem with flights.

Childs and Kowar pledged to members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors Tuesday that the carrier will try to communicate better with passengers in Aspen this winter when flights are delayed or canceled.

“Let people know what’s going on even if it’s bad news,” encouraged ACRA board president Warren Klug.

scondon@aspentimes.com