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United to switch Aspen carrier

United Airlines has tentatively decided to end its relationship with the regional carrier that flies between Denver and Aspen.Air Wisconsin Airlines flies as United Express out of the Denver, Washington, D.C., and Chicago airports. According to an announcement Thursday from United Airlines, a new group of regional air carriers will take over the United Express flights out of those airports, while Air Wisconsin will continue to perform ground handling at a number of locations.United put all of its regional carriers out to bid last fall in an attempt to cut costs. The airline declared bankruptcy more than two years ago.Business will go on as usual through the 2005-06 ski season, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass. The tentative agreement assures it will take about a year to transition to a new carrier.”I’ve been assured that they will maintain a large enough fleet to service us through the next ski season,” Tomcich said. “There are no short-term issues with this – our summer schedule is the strongest ever, and the winter schedule will be the same as this last one.”United’s corporate headquarters released the following statement:”Aspen is important to us. We are fully committed to continue to serve Aspen now and moving forward,” said Sean Donohue, vice president of United Express and Ted. “We have a long transition timeline, giving us plenty of time to secure replacement aircraft for the long-term.”A new carrier has not been announced.SkyWest and GoJet were announced in April as two of the carriers that will take over some of the United Express routes. But a United announcement also said discussions with other carriers are ongoing and the company may award additional flying and ground-handling based on bids from other regional airlines.Robin Urbanski, a spokesperson for United, said it’s too soon to say anything about who might handle the Denver-to-Aspen route. She did, however, assure that service wouldn’t be affected by the switch.”What the customers are getting now is what we plan to give them in the future,” she said. “We did announce our agreements with SkyWest and GoJet, but it’s too premature to say anything else.”The biggest challenge to the Aspen airport, Tomcich notes, is the type of aircraft a new carrier would bring here. Small jets – rather than turboprops – best serve Sardy Field, he said.An airport employee, who did not want to be identified by name, said the question of jets versus turboprops is the biggest question for the community.”That could really have an impact on the local economy,” he said. “It’s difficult to envision a [turboprop] providing as many seats to Aspen on a daily basis in the winter as the jets provide.”He said he estimates it would take 50 to 60 of the turboprops each day to make up for a loss of jets.”United needs to find an operator who can acquire the appropriate equipment to work here,” Tomcich said. It’s a tall order, he acknowledges, but they’re starting to work on that problem now, hoping to solve it by the spring of ’06.In addition, the Aspen airport will close to all air traffic from April 2006 until June to replace the entire aging runway. That gives United closer to 14 months to figure out the aircraft problem.”There are a number of different scenarios they’re looking into, but it’s their intention to replace Air Wisconsin’s capacity seat for seat with no reduction in service,” Tomcich said. “Aspen is a valuable route for United, and one they intend to preserve.”The reason for the changeUnited Airlines announced it was putting all of its regional service out to big in November, to cut costs after declaring bankruptcy.”Since Sept. 11 the entire industry has gone through a major upheaval with the loss of passenger traffic and higher fuel costs,” said the airport employee who did not want to be named. “It’s been the perfect storm for the airline industry.”He said he and other airport employees were notified about United putting its regional service out to bid.”It looks like we didn’t fair too well overall,” he said. “It’s fine in the marketplace, but United tends to play express carriers against each other.”Tomcich said he would characterize the split from Air Wisconsin as a mutual agreement, noting that Air Wisconsin has announced an upcoming partnership with US Airways.A letter faxed to The Aspen Times on Thursday night quotes Air Wisconsin President and CEO Geoff Crowley saying, “We were asked to continue our business at rates that would not cover our costs and would have ultimately put [Air Wisconsin] out of business. That was the reality.”The letter was sent to the airline’s employees, including management, mechanics, pilots and flight attendants. Crowley wrote that United was “able to attract new or existing partners with equipment better suited for their network … or partners with extremely low cost structures.”He said Air Wisconsin’s aircraft will be used with US Airways, “although at the cost of a significant investment” that they’re willing to make to protect the long-term viability of Air Wisconsin.”We believe that the future of US Airways holds great promise and will give us a chance to revitalize under their banner,” he wrote.Air Wisconsin representatives didn’t respond to calls seeking comment. But Tomcich speculated that local employees will be retained if the company continues to operate ground handling at the Aspen airport. Otherwise, he said, a new carrier might hire the same locals to do the job.The anonymous airport employee echoed those sentiments.”If United does keep certain ground-handling stations, we expect to be one of those because we are very cost effective and provide a very good product,” he said. That would include everyone from ticketing agents to baggage and de-icing services. A number of staff members have been at the airport for many years, he said, and already have taken 15 percent cuts in pay and benefits after Sept. 11, 2001.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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