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Some worried United could reduce flights

Some Aspen tourism officials are concerned that United Airlines might not fly as many weekend flights next ski season as it has in the past.

United’s affiliate, United Express, currently has 12 flights scheduled into Pitkin County Airport every day during the winter. Traditionally, the carrier adjusts that schedule by adding weekend flights – when skiers’ demand for access to Aspen peaks.

Last winter, the schedule was boosted to 18 flights per Saturday, including 17 from Denver and one from Los Angeles.

Fears by tourism officials that the service won’t return to that level may be nothing more than post-traumatic jitters. Many local businesses took a beating last winter. Skier visits to the slopes were down 8 percent.

Business leaders are already fretting about next winter. Rumors reverberated through the lodging community last week about the potential for decreased airline access.

Bill Tomcich, president of Aspen Central Reservations and the community liaison to the airlines, said it’s unclear to him at this point how the United Express winter schedule into Aspen will shake out. He said he’s spoken to numerous United officials and received “very mixed messages.”

“I’ve received mixed messages about what their intentions are for next winter,” he said.

But he noted that the airline’s published schedule on the computer reservation system used by travel agents throughout the world is the same now as it was at this point last year. Currently, the 12 daily flights are scheduled, as was the case in June 1998.

The weekend schedule is never increased until later in the summer, according to Tomcich. He declined to comment on whether lobbying efforts are under way to make sure United adds those flights.

“That wouldn’t be appropriate for me to talk about. That’s between us and United,” he said.

Aspen Skiing Co. Chief Executive Officer John Norton declined to comment on winter schedule issues other than to note that United and United Express officials have scheduled a meeting in Aspen next month.

United Express executive Pat Thompson said it is premature to talk about Aspen’s winter schedule. Officials at the parent corporation, United Airlines, will set that schedule “by the end of July, for sure,” he said.

Thompson, executive vice president of operations for United Express, noted that additional weekend flights have been added every year.

Local tourism officials aren’t so convinced. One source recalled that Aspen made a very public display of its displeasure with United’s quality of service last season. The source wondered if United might respond by cutting flights.

The airline’s service was the topic of a public discussion by the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Community Advisory Committee. No United or United Express officials attended. The meeting did little to improve relations and the Advisory Committee meetings have been closed ever since.

Another source speculated that United might have decided to improve guest service by cutting back the number of flights to a more manageable number.

If that’s the case, Aspen officials may learn to heed the old saying, “watch out what you ask for; you just might get it.” Reducing the weekend flights from 18 per day to 12 would mean a total of 1,080 fewer seats available each weekend.


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