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United’s poor service

Fed up with what they called horrific service and lousy customer relations, a cross-section of Aspenites decided Thursday to press United Airlines for answers about why they do the things they do.

Members of the Aspen Skiing Co. Community Advisory Committee agreed to form a subcommittee that will assemble questions, then send a delegate to pose the queries to United Express and United Airlines officials and invite them to come to Aspen with answers.

The meeting, stressed Skico President and CEO Pat O’Donnell, is “not just a witch hunt.” Instead he wants open a dialogue designed to lead to better service from Aspen’s primary air carrier.

“I think we have so much at stake as a community here,” said O’Donnell. “It’s not just a ski company issue.”

The resorts of Aspen and Snowmass Village are losing business because of the quality of service from United Express, O’Donnell alleged and nearly two-dozen other audience members acknowledged.

The “war stories” range from inexplicably canceled flights, overbooking and lack of communication with customers. “I’m not going to pull any punches – we’re frustrated trying to get access to Aspen,” said O’Donnell.

But the Skico CEO wouldn’t let the Community Advisory Committee meeting turn into a gripe session. Instead it centered on a report from airline industry expert Bill Tomcich on current conditions and prospects for expanded or improved service.

Aspen’s airline situation, Tomcich said, “boils down to creating options to United Airlines.” But those options are “pretty limited.”

United’s local competitors, Northwest Airlink and American West Express, drew accolades for their service, but United supplies the vast majority of the 180,500 seats that will be available this ski season. The industry giant accounts for more than 75 percent of the passengers flying in to Aspen.

The key to improving service, committee members agreed, is to coax better service out of United.

Through a United Express affiliate operated by Air Wisconsin, United provides between 12 and 16 daily jet flights between Aspen and Denver, and one daily flight to Los Angeles.

An agreement with pilots has capped the number of aircraft used in this market to 18, according to Tomcich. That agreement “basically boils down to job security” for the pilots, he said, and it also proves to be a major factor in determining how much service is offered here.

But Tomcich indicated he’s not real concerned about the availability of seats. Eagle County has a lot of flights with unfilled seats and is an untapped resource for Aspen, he said.

A bigger runway at that airport allows direct flights from numerous markets. The airport is roughly two hours away from Aspen.

About 12 percent of Aspen-Snowmass’ overnight guests are already flying into Eagle County Airport, according to Tomcich. Local ground carrier Colorado Mountain Express hauls about 20,000 passengers each season from that airport to Roaring Fork Valley accommodations.

Tomcich said he continues to work with other prospective carriers for service into the Aspen Airport but didn’t want to risk any deals by prematurely releasing details.

The idea of approaching United and United Express officials and making a plea for better service was suggested by O’Donnell. The group concluded that it will draw up its list of questions and show airline officials what type of issues they want to discuss.

They will likely try to invite Air Wisconsin President Pat Thompson and United Airlines Regional Vice President Roger Gibson to a meeting in Aspen.

But expectations of such a tack seemed somewhat uncertain. “Is there some way to make them care?” asked one audience member.

“A lot of our problems are not going to be solved overnight,” O’Donnell concluded.


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