There’s hope for reducing delays, cancellations of airline flights at Aspen airport

Airport serving Sun Valley invested in technology that has reduced delays

A commercial aircraft maneuvers for a landing at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in December 2014. The number of available seats is up this winter at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
Aspen Times file

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has long been plagued by delays and cancellations of commercial flights due to its setting in the Elk Mountains.

But a recent investment in satellite-based technology by the airport serving Sun Valley could provide a blueprint on how Aspen could reduce the frustration.

Airlines are studying and using simulators to test new satellite technology that could allow specially equipped aircraft to complete flights more consistently in snow and fog, according to Bill Tomcich, a consultant with Fly Aspen Snowmass and managing partner of a business that helps airports secure commercial service. He is the Aspen-Snowmass Village business community’s liaison with the airport and airlines.

Tomcich said the Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho, invested heavily in the satellite technology that allowed new instrument approach procedures starting in December 2020. The airport serves Sun Valley resort. Regional jets regularly had to divert to Twin Falls or Salt Lake City when the cloud cover was too low in Hailey. Now commercial pilots can land in low-visibility conditions, even when cloud cover is lower than 1,600 feet, according to an article in the Idaho Mountain Express.

A March article in Travel & Leisure magazine cited a study that ranked Aspen-Pitkin County Airport the worst to fly into among small airports. Delays, cancellations and average fare were all strikes against Aspen.

Tomcich said he believes the Hailey airport’s experiences bode well for Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. With the studies underway using the same technology in Aspen, “it’s only a matter of time” before similar procedures using the same technology are flight validated and approved for use in Aspen by the Federal Aviation Administration, Tomcich said in an email.

“While this will help address the visibility issues during periods of snow and fog and will likely allow the (Embraer) E175 to operate into ASE, it will not help during periods of snow and unfavorable winds,” Tomcich said.

He noted that another mountain airport with notorious delays and cancellations, Mammoth Yosemite Airport, went a different route than Hailey-Sun Valley to find a solution. Mammoth relocated its commercial flight operations 30 miles away and 3,000 feet lower in elevation to the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, California. As a result of the shift, not a single flight cancellation due to weather occurred last winter, according to Tomcich.

Moving commercial flights to a different airport such as Rifle isn’t an option for Aspen. One of Aspen’s advantages over other destination resorts is the closeness of the airport to town.

But the terrain surrounding Aspen-Pitkin County Airport creates challenges for air carriers during stormy and windy times. Aspen is notorious for delays and cancellations.

A March article in Travel & Leisure Magazine said a recent study by an organization called ValuePenguin rated Aspen-Pitkin County as the “worst small airport” in the country to fly into.

The study looked at 100 airports and used flight completion information compiled by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics from December 2020 to November.

Aspen had a 26.4% delay rate and an 8.4% major delay rate of at least one hour, ValuePenguin’s study said. The average delay at Aspen was 26.21 minutes.

The cancellation rate for commercial flights landing in Aspen was 3.5%, the study said.

To add insult to injury, Aspen also had the highest average fare among the 100 airports in the survey. Aspen’s average was $607.

“The (Aspen) airport ranks in the bottom three among each metric examined, from 3.5% of arrivals being canceled to an average airfare of $607 — both the worst,” the study said in its key findings section.

Aspen-Pitkin County Airport Director Dan Bartholomew said the article and study took a big-picture view but didn’t dig into the reasons for the delays and cancellations. Aspen has unique wind conditions and typical procedures where commercial aircraft land in one direction and take off the opposite direction.

He said he believes customers who regularly fly into and out of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport know that weather can present a problem.

The technology being studied to improve low-visibility procedures can help minimize delays and cancellations but not completely solve the issue, he said.

The solution would require an investment in technology by the airlines serving Aspen. The airport in Hailey also chipped in to advance the upgrade.

Tomcich said customers might realize there are challenges flying in and out of Aspen, but they still want reliability.

“Providing the best possible experience for guests flying in and out of ASE does matter,” Tomcich wrote in an email. “These guests pay a lot to fly in and out of ASE, and when things work as planned, generally more than 90% of the time even in winter, it is a premium many are willing to pay for a great travel experience. But it is possible to provide a better experience when things don’t go exactly as planned, and our guests do deserve better. That is our number one priority to address.”

Tomcich said there is the potential for ground transportation options to improve by next ski season for the times when flights are diverted. Colorado Mountain Express no longer operates in the Roaring Fork Valley. CME used to be an option for airline passengers when their flights were diverted to Denver or when flights couldn’t depart Aspen.

Another company is working on plans to start service to and from the Aspen airport, Tomich said. A formal announcement could come within the next couple of weeks.