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United increases flights

Steve Benson

Despite financial woes, United Airlines has boosted its flight schedule at the Aspen airport for the rest of the summer and is planning to increase flights this winter to accommodate demand. United Express, which is operated by Air Wisconsin and Mesa Airlines at Sardy Field, is offering 12 flights a day in and out of Aspen for the rest of August and the first week of September. Last year, there were nine flights a day in August, but all of them were on British Aerospace BAE-146 jets, which can carry 86 to 100 passengers. According to Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, bookings for the rest of August and September are way up.”September looks incredible compared to last year,” he said. “Really, really strong.”For the rest of August and early September, six BAE-146’s and six Bombardier Dash-8-200 propeller planes, which have an occupancy of 37 passengers, are flying daily. While the number of available seats has remained basically the same since fewer jets are flying, Tomcich said increasing the number of flights will prove beneficial for everyone.The Dash-8’s will provide United Airlines with a more cost-effective alternative to the BAE-146’s, which are sometimes flown at half occupancy, he said. And increasing the number of flights per day gives passengers more options and flexibility. “There’s higher frequency and better schedules,” Tomcich said. “It’s more flexible for visitors and locals alike.” United Express’ September schedule will offer eight daily flights – four BAE-146’s and 4 Dash-8’s – compared to five BAE-146 flights last September.This winter, the carrier will offer 12 daily flights, up from 11 last year. One of those flights will be a Dash-8, the rest are slated as BAE-146’s. Northwest Airlines will also boost its schedule by one flight this winter while America West will continue to offer its daily Dash-8 flight from Phoenix.The future of Sardy FieldTomcich admits Aspen’s airport can be a headache for travelers. Some visitors and second-home owners say they have given up on the cumbersome airport and now fly in and out of Eagle County or Denver International Airport.Last winter, Tomcich said overall business and occupancy in Aspen and Snowmass increased, but passenger boardings at Sardy Field dropped 11 percent. “It doesn’t take a mathematician – people are not bothering to fly into Aspen anymore. They’ve found other ways to get here,” Tomcich said. “That’s a scary trend.” But he said help is on the way, although it may take a few years. Extending the runway, which would allow planes to take off more frequently in adverse conditions, such as hot temperatures and high winds – common circumstances that create weight restrictions on flights out of Aspen – is in the works.The extension could be constructed as early as 2006 or as late as 2010, depending on how quickly the wheels turn with the environmental review and final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and Pitkin County. Until then, Tomcich said he and officials at the airport are doing “everything we can with the possible resources.” But because of the airport’s precarious high-altitude location, resources are limited due to a variety of technical challenges. Only a handful of commercial planes are able to fly into Aspen, and all of them are currently utilized. As for the frustrations expressed by travelers toward the airport, Tomcich said it’s to be expected, but it’s often misguided toward the airport staff. “The people on the front lines have a really, really tough job,” he said. “The clientele is very demanding and they don’t realize how tough it is to operate in and out of here – the operational challenges are incredible. “I would challenge them to find any community in the world that has a local population of 7,000 residents to have a fraction of the air service we have in Aspen.” Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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