In writing about the problems of holiday travel to Aspen, Aspen Times writer Rick Carroll concludes with a quote from a frustrated traveler suggesting that it’s easier and cheaper to fly to Salt Lake City to ski than to fight the Aspen air-travel issues (“Aspen holiday travelers wait, wait and wait,” Dec. 29).
Of course he’s right, but then he wouldn’t be in Aspen, would he? There are a few things that can make his experience better, and people like John Kinney are working on them. But one that is not helpful in that story is the quote that the Federal Aviation Administration gave last year and again this year regarding the eyewitness comments about whether private aircraft have priority over commercial aircraft at the Aspen airport. The FAA spokesman says, “Private aircraft did not receive priority handling.” They probably didn’t, but that misses the point. The point is commercial aircraft don’t have priority. And they should.
I flew out on Delta on Sunday from Minneapolis. Our plane was sitting at its assigned gate on time, but it was delayed in boarding a full hour while Delta tried repeatedly to get seven people to give up their seats because of overbooking. There were few takers. And so we sat. Of course. With hotel reservations, ski tickets and dinner reservations, you can’t overbook these flights.
After boarding, we were barraged with the same offer to give up seats again and again by the stewards and the gate agents. An so we sat on the tarmac — and people hoping to return on that flight sat cooling their heels in Aspen. Finally, the head steward said, “We are not leaving until five of you give up your seats.”
That caused a shouting match from the passengers who somehow felt they had at least as much right to their confirmed seats as those waiting to board. The alternative offered by Delta was to fly to Montrose 24 hours later or to Denver and bus to Aspen 24 hours later. No alternative offer to fly to Aspen was made.
We left nearly an hour late, and then we circled Aspen for 40 minutes before landing. Anyone who can recognize Ruedi knows when you’ve passed over it six times that you are circling. Was that because commercial flights did not have priority over general aviation? Probably. Fortunately, when we did finally land, the attendants asked us all to keep our seats so those with tight connections could get off first.
THIS KIND OF INCOMPETENCE AND GREED ON DELTA’S PART IS FIXABLE. THE TIME LOST CIRCLING SHOULD BE FIXABLE BY CLARIFYING THE PRIORITY OF COMMERCIAL FLIGHTS. I HOPE WE CAN DO THAT BEFORE FLYING TO SALT LAKE SOUNDS ANY MORE ATTRACTIVE.
Aspen holiday travelers wait, wait and wait
The patience of travelers at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was greatly tested over the weekend.
On Saturday, passengers waited up to four hours in the boarding area and nearly three hours while aboard commercial aircraft, security lines stretched outside, and eight travelers slept at the facility overnight because of flight delays and cancellations.
Airport Director John Kinney said a litany of factors played into the holiday weekend’s travel aches, which were being addressed Monday. Among them were a shortage of workers with the Transportation Security Administration, mechanical issues with airplanes, and weather-induced delays that choked commercial carriers’ flight schedules at such major hub airports as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Houston.
One traveler, David Aggy, said he and his girlfriend waited nearly three hours aboard a United aircraft before it departed from Aspen. The wait lasted 168 minutes, according to flight data.
“Strangely, people were fairly calm about it for a while,” he said, “until about the third time they said it will be a half an hour before we take off.”
Aggy, who owns a home in Aspen, said travel woes are to be expected at the Aspen airport. But watching private jets depart and land, while commercial travelers were stranded on the airport apron, some of them with their crying children, didn’t sit well with him and others.
“This is the busiest day of the year,” he said. “I get it. But what people couldn’t understand was private plane after private plane ...”
The Federal Aviation Administration oversees traffic controllers who determine when planes can land and depart.
Kinney said the FAA has told him numerous times that it gives priority to aircraft with the most passengers, whether commercial or private.
“And there’s far more people in commercial,” he said.
The Aspen air-traffic controller routed questions to an FAA spokesman who said capacity issues at the airport were the issue, not preferential treatment.
“Air traffic at the Aspen Airport exceeded capacity of the airport over the weekend and all flights were impacted and many were delayed,” said FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer in an email to The Aspen Times. “Private aircraft did not receive priority handling.”
Kinney and other airport officials were there Saturday and Sunday monitoring lines and keeping passengers apprised. At one point, a family with a child with special needs asked to be removed from one of the airplanes on the tarmac. The airport was about to accommodate them before air-traffic control confirmed the flight would be taking off within five minutes, Kinney said.
“Those people sitting two or three hours were probably at their wits’ end,” Kinney said.
At one point Saturday, 10 aircraft were on the ground, Kinney said.
Twenty-five of the 27 commercial arrivals Saturday were impacted, with five cancellations and 20 delays. Commercial flight delays and cancellations weren’t restricted to just Saturday; Sunday and Monday also saw numerous flight setbacks, flight statistics show.
Both outgoing Delta Air Lines flights were delayed Saturday, and two of four American Airlines flights were delayed and another one was canceled, according to flight data.
United Airlines flights, whether inbound or outbound, were plagued with problems. Of United’s 16 scheduled outbound flights that day, 14 were delayed and two were canceled. The first United flight of the day, scheduled to arrive in Denver at 1:20 p.m., didn’t land until 8 p.m.
Aggy’s flight didn’t land in San Francisco until 5:39 p.m., nearly three hours after the scheduled arrival of 2:51 p.m.
United found lodge rooms for about 20 passengers to sleep in Saturday night, while the airport allowed eight of them to sleep at the facility overnight.
“We had overnight eight visitors who chose not to find a hotel room given the high occupancy,” Kinney said.
Waits in the security lines were long, as well, with passengers trickling outside the airport’s front doors, Kinney said.
“We had 300 people waiting to get through the TSA into the passenger boarding-lounge area, and we were pushing 600 people in the entire area,” he said.
Aspen fire code has a cap of 316 people in the waiting area; the airport keeps it at 280 as a “comfort zone,” Kinney said.
“It’s pretty tight in there,” he said.
The airport also recently started a $600,000 terminal expansion that will enlarge the boarding space from 4,200 square feet to 6,325. It also calls for expanding the capacity from 280 passengers to 421.
Aggy, who has visited Aspen since he was a child, said before he bought his home here, airport service was “one of my biggest concerns, besides homes here being three times the price at Park City (Utah). Southwest to Salt Lake City is one-third of the price (to fly to Aspen), and it lands on time. Utah is looking better every year.”