DIA aims for no meltdown this winter; More snow-removal equipment, new airline procedures in place

In the years before DIA opened, city officials touted the airport as an all-weather marvel capable of operating normally "in anything short of a total whiteout." Even during a blizzard, they boasted, Denver International Airport would run as...


In the years before DIA opened, city officials touted the airport as an all-weather marvel capable of operating normally "in anything short of a total whiteout."

Even during a blizzard, they boasted, Denver International Airport would run as smoothly as its predecessor, Stapleton International Airport, could on a sunny day.

But those proud proclamations seemed laughable last December, when the nation's sixth-busiest airport was forced to close for 45 hours after a blizzard hammered the city.

Airlines were caught flat-footed as well, ill-equipped to reroute an avalanche of customers after having to cancel several thousand flights. A severe snowstorm a week later only exacerbated the problems.

As another winter approaches, DIA and its largest tenants want to reassure passengers that they've implemented major changes to help alleviate problems the next time a severe snowstorm hits.

The airport, with help from airlines, is spending $31 million to overhaul its snow strategy for the first time since it opened in 1995. As part of the process, DIA is making more than 100 modifications to its snow plan, a much bigger effort than the tweaks it typically makes each year.

The airport's largest carriers - United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines - also have instituted their own changes for dealing with snow.

The moves include enhanced communications and tighter collaboration, more snow-removal equipment and additional employees, upgraded software and expanded ticketing areas.

While the airport has distanced itself from grandiose claims that it can easily brush off weather problems, the changes by DIA and its airlines ideally will help prevent long closures and minimize delays.

For passengers, that should mean fewer cancellations, better information and less chaos.

"No plan is guaranteed to trump Mother Nature," said John Kinney, DIA's deputy aviation manager. "But had we had the equipment lineup and the changes we're talking about in place (last winter), we likely would've had less than a 10-hour closure."

The success DIA and its airlines have in handling severe weather is vital for air service here. Another incident or two like last winter could damage Denver's reputation as an efficient place to fly, causing airlines to scale back flights or look elsewhere to grow. Some passengers also could decide to avoid Denver in the winter altogether, which would ripple through the state's economy.

Both DIA and its major airlines admit they were caught off guard by the back-to-back storms.

"The historical effort we put forth for snow removal was simply outdated," Kinney said. "The '06 blizzard made us painfully aware of that issue."

The weather was nasty, for sure. And any airport would've had difficulty keeping up with the massive snowfall during the first blizzard.

But DIA wasn't able to reopen until 21 hours after snowfall stopped, which some observers say is inexcusable for a major metropolitan airport.

DIA says it didn't have enough manpower or equipment to keep its runways, taxiways and roads clear. There also was a lack of communication between the airlines and the airport. The airlines, responsible for keeping ramp areas clear, were pushing snow onto other parts of the airfield that had already been cleared by airport workers.

Immeasurable anger

In all, airlines were forced to cancel 4,000 flights into and out of Denver around the holidays, causing millions of dollars in losses and angering untold numbers of customers. Check-in lines at DIA were unbearably long for days, and it was impossible for many passengers to get through to United Airlines and Frontier Airlines on the phone.

More than 35 percent of DIA's scheduled flights during the month were at least 15 minutes late, a sharp increase from 27 percent a year earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

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