Airport enters busiest week, outbound travelers asked to arrive two hours early

by Dorothy Atkins, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Sardy Field officials want travelers to know that they need to check in two hours before departure as the airport enters its busiest week of the season.

Through next week, there will be 26 commercial flights departing from Aspen’s airport and just as many landing each day, said Brian Grefe, assistant director of aviation for administration at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. With each flight nearly full, that means about 4,000 travelers will be utilizing the airport daily, he said. Passengers flying privately are not included in those figures, he added.

Meanwhile, the airport ramp, where planes park, board and refuel, is 75 to 80 percent full, Grefe said.

“This will definitely be the busiest time during the season and very well could be the busiest time of the year,” Grefe said. Other periods in the running for the designation include President’s Day weekend and days surrounding the Fourth of July, he said.

Meanwhile, the busiest time of the day to travel out of Aspen is between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. when there are five flights leaving the airport within the hour, Grefe said.

Bill Tomcich, president of central bookings agency Stay Aspen Snowmass, sent an email blast to lodging properties in Aspen and Snowmass on Wednesday asking them to help get outbound travelers to the airport two hours before their departure. The time it takes to check in and get through security will be longer than usual due to the volume of people going in and out of the airport, he said. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that nearly all of the planes are full so travelers who miss their flights can’t easily catch another one, he said.

Tomcich’s email was spurred by a group of travelers who missed their flight after they were dropped off at the airport by a local hotel shuttle about an hour before their 7 a.m. departure on Wednesday, he said. Due to a long line at the ticket counter, they missed the 30-minute cut-off period and they were denied boarding, Tomcich said. They were then responsible for the cost of their own ground transportation to Denver to make their connections, he said.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Passengers at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport wait at the security checkpoint on Wednesday afternoon. Travelers are urged to get to the airport at least two hours before their scheduled departure time.

“I’m sure it’s not the first time it has ever happened, but it was so close,” Tomcich said. “... And I thought that it was really important that we brought it to the attention of lodging properties.”

The local lodging community should be prepared to get guests to the airport two hours prior to their departure, because there is ample opportunity for passengers to miss their flights over the next week, as well as on the weekends throughout the winter season when all planes will be full, Tomcich said.

“The situation is going to be prevalent,” he said.

Both Tomcich and Grefe agreed that the time it will take to get people in and out of the airport over the next week is proof that the facility could benefit from an expansion.

“I think it certainly exposes some of the airport’s weaknesses,” Tomcich said.

County commissioners approved a master plan in December that will guide the expansion of the airport over the next two decades. The plan, which has received criticism from community members for its size and scope, is a placeholder for the future development of Sardy Field. It includes setting aside space for a $121 million new terminal of up to 80,000 square feet, a new fixed-based operation along Owl Creek Road and a 750-space underground parking garage.

Tomcich argued that most locals opposing the airport expansion don’t experience the wait times that are caused by the high number of travelers going through during peak seasons.

“A lot of locals don’t ever get to see the kind of chaos that exists during the early morning hours this week,” Tomcich said.

Expanding the airport could ease some of the stress and wait time, he said.

Meanwhile, there have only been a handful of commercial flights canceled since Christmas thanks largely to Sky West Airlines, which has the bulk of flights at the airport, Tomcich said. The few cancellations were due to inclement weather and Sky West rescheduled them for the following day, he added.

“I’d love to give them a world of credit,” he said. “... And now the burden is on us to get the guests to the airport on time.”