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 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.

DIA pins part of the problem on the sheer severity and timing of the storms, which hit during the busy holiday season when planes were already packed. That meant there was little wiggle room to accommodate passengers on other flights.

But the airport also admits it was unprepared for a blizzard of that magnitude, in large part because it had put snow-removal efforts on the back burner while facing budget cuts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"There were a variety of dynamics going on . . . and the dots weren't connected," DIA's Kinney said. "In the post-9/11 environment, uncertainty reigned. Fiscal conservation was paramount, and we had had mild winters. We were lulled into a false sense (of security). We didn't feel it was an issue that needed to be addressed, given the very limited financial resources available."

DIA also didn't modify its snow plan to keep up with growth. Annual passenger traffic at DIA rocketed 26 percent from 2003 through 2006, while the number of takeoffs and landings at the airport soared 33 percent.

"The airport got caught with its plow down," said Evergreen aviation consultant Mike Boyd. "I think they had just kind of skated by for years hoping nothing like this would happen. But I can tell you that they will never again have a situation where the sun comes up and they can't open the airport for hours. They won't let it happen again."

Lessons brought changes

Indeed, DIA has overhauled its snow plan, incorporating some recommendations made by a consultant who conducted a thorough study.

The new strategy involves a different way of looking at snow removal, viewing the airport's parts together.

"We need to look at this as a system and not separate components," as the airport had in the past, said Ruth Rodriguez, DIA's deputy manager of aviation maintenance and engineering.

The airport has rearranged how and where it deploys workers and top-level decision-makers to ensure that it can adapt to changing conditions and communicate effectively. It has developed new policies to work more closely with the Federal Aviation Administration - locally, regionally and nationally - as well as with airlines and the Regional Transportation District. It now has a crew dedicated to the east side of the airfield and one reserved for the west side, which offers a more focused, efficient approach. And it has employees who will focus on certain areas such as parking lots, rather than jumping around to different spots.

DIA also is installing software that gives certain employees up-to-date data about airport conditions.

"This is real-time information on security initiatives, flight schedules, snow-removal efforts, irregularities on the airfield," Kinney said. "It's all the information that people would need to make decisions."

Another key part of its revamped plan includes additional workers and equipment to keep runways, parking lots, roads and taxiways open.

DIA has doubled the number of workers and equipment such as plows and blowers available for snow-related tasks. It also is bringing on a new type of machine - snow melters - that are more efficient than plows because the snow doesn't have to be hauled away.

Airport officials say that, taken together, the moves will minimize recovery time and help DIA operate as predictably as possible in any weather.

"This was an opportunity for everyone to take a hard look at the processes, procedures and programs and see if they reflect today's challenges," Kinney said. "I think everyone made substantial changes."

Airlines change strategy, too

The airlines also have taken some dramatic steps, although not all of the changes are a direct result of last winter's problems.

Frontier, for instance, has boosted its customer service staff by 16.5 percent, particularly at gates and check-in counters. It also has increased its ticketing areas, adding new counters, curbside desks and automated kiosks.

Perhaps its biggest move is implementing new software that will automatically re-book customers whose flights were canceled. The airline expects that the change will dramatically reduce lines and phone calls when there are cancellations, as customers won't have to speak with someone to get on another flight. They can print out their boarding passes for the new flight from one of the company's check-in kiosks or from home.

"We got 1.5 million calls that first day (of the 2006 December blizzard) because of the cancellations," Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said. "We're not going to be able to handle that ever. So, we work around that and figure out ways to reduce call volume."

United has installed kiosks in the B concourse that allow passengers to re-book their flights without having to go back to the main terminal. It also added more de-icing trucks.

Southwest, which still has a relatively small presence in Denver compared with United and Frontier, didn't run into as many complications last winter as its competitors did. But it, too, realized that it "didn't have nearly enough equipment to handle snow" at those levels, said Dave LaPorte, Southwest's Denver station manager.

This year, the carrier added new snowplows and de-icing machines.

Most significantly, the carrier streamlined its schedule in Denver by spreading more flights throughout the day rather than clustering them around peak times, although that change was not directly related to last winter.

"Traditionally, we used to have high peaks and low valleys throughout the day," LaPorte said. "This helps on many different fronts, with staffing and gate utilization and also with weather. We're not going to have a large number of flights all coming in at the same time."

High stakes

DIA and its major airlines have a lot to lose if the changes don't work.

Carriers nationwide are already struggling with customer service issues, many tied to weather-related problems. That's caused increased scrutiny from federal regulators, some of whom are calling for new laws governing how airlines deal with weather complications.

Airlines stand to lose money, too.

United said it lost $40 million in revenue from the storms in Denver and, to a much lesser extent, Chicago last December. Frontier lost $16 million.

The two carriers also took hits to their image.

DIA faces financial implications too: The airport spent $6.4 million tied to the storms.

And some travelers said they would no longer connect through Denver. Keeping that flow of connecting traffic is vital for DIA. The airport, which gleans more than 40 percent of its overall traffic through connecting passengers, could get hit hard financially if carriers decide to scale back and route customers through other airports.

"There are a lot of hubs passengers can connect through going west," said Darryl Jenkins, a Virginia-based airline consultant. "Dallas, for instance, seldom has snow. Everything that happens in the airline industry is a competitive issue, and airlines and airports compete aggressively for traffic."

The airport and its major airlines seem comfortable with the changes, saying they worked together to come up with a comprehensive plan.

DIA was able to strike an agreement to use its share of Colorado fuel-tax revenues to help fund the $31 million plan, offsetting some of the financial impact for airlines.

"The airport has done a very thorough overview, and we believe that they have significantly improved their snow-removal plan," said Cliff Van Leuven, Frontier's vice president of customer service. "We think one of the key things that DIA identified is that they can't always keep the whole airport open. They've limited the scope on what they're going to try to do."


The airport's plans

Denver International Airport suffered through an embarrassing two-day closure last winter after a blizzard hammered the state. It also struggled when a second severe storm hit just over a week later. The storms led to several thousand cancellations and exposed holes in the plans DIA and its largest airlines had for dealing with heavy snow. But both sides have instituted changes that they think will help avoid similar problems this winter and beyond. Here's a rundown of the biggest:


* NEW SOFTWARE Proprietary software will allow certain workers and decision-makers to receive real-time information about security waits, flight schedules, snow-removal efforts and airfield conditions, among other data. That will make it easier to make decisions and react to changing conditions.

* ENHANCED COLLABORATION New policies and procedures will allow the airport to work more closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines, RTD and other organizations. That includes 5 a.m. conference calls with the FAA and follow-up teleconferences every two hours when weather conditions warrant. The airport also will hold critique sessions with stakeholders before and after significant events.

* REALLOCATION OF WORKERS DIA will put a high-level operations executive in the airport control tower during snowstorms, which will bridge communication between crews on the airfield, the FAA and the rest of the airport. It also will dedicate more workers to specific tasks - such as clearing snow in parking lots or on Pena Boulevard - rather than having them responsible for multiple areas.

* ADDITIONAL EMPLOYEES The airport has tripled the number of workers available for snow-related tasks. It will have up to 490 people available each shift to run snow-removal equipment at peak periods, up from 190 in 2006.

* NEW EQUIPMENT DIA is doubling its snow-removal and related equipment. That includes 26 additional snowplows and seven snow-melters, which are much more efficient than plows because the snow doesn't have to be hauled away. In coming years the airport also will add 37 pieces of multifunctional equipment that incorporates a snowplow, broom and blower. It also now has a dedicated staff that will focus on clearing parking lots and other specific areas.

* FEWER PRIORITY AREAS The airport has reduced its priority areas - including runways and taxiways that are critical to safe operations - by 20 percent. That equates to about 10 million square feet for the highest priority area. Having fewer priority areas allows the airport to concentrate its efforts on the most important areas.


What airlines are doing * ADDITIONAL CHECK-IN SPACE Frontier has increased the number of ticket counters at DIA by one-third, added 69 check-in kiosks and doubled curbside check-in areas. It also has added four more areas reserved for passengers who printed their boarding passes at home but still need to check bags, and it has increased space that holds outbound luggage. United has added additional check-in kiosks, improved signage and remodeled its ticketing area. * MORE EMPLOYEES Most airlines have added customer service staff throughout the airport, particularly at ticket counters and gate areas, to help accommodate passengers. While most of the staff increases are related to simple growth, some of the new positions also are tied to lessons learned from last year's snowstorms. United has a new customer service team in its main operations center to serve customers who have experienced severe flight disruptions. * ENHANCED SOFTWARE, TECHNOLOGY Frontier is unveiling software that automatically rebooks those passengers whose flights are canceled. Passengers can then print their new boarding passes from one of the self-check-in kiosks or at home. The carrier also now allows customers the option to reprint their boarding passes before coming to the airport, which will help further shorten check-in lines. United has installed automated check-in units on its concourses so passengers that need to rebook don't have to go all the way to the main terminal. * NEW EQUIPMENT Denver's three major airlines have all added plows and related equipment to help clear snow around the gate areas. Frontier has brought on $140,000 worth of new snow-related equipment, including two trucks equipped with snow plows, six three-quarter-ton pickup trucks and several industrial snow blowers; Southwest has added new snow plows and three additional de-icing trucks and will use a second de-icing pad; United has purchased two new de-icing trucks. * ALTERED SCHEDULING Southwest has shifted how it schedules flights through Denver to create a more even flow throughout the day rather than having most flights arriving and departing in clusters. The move helps ease bottlenecks and allows the carrier to be more flexible, particularly during severe weather events. * NEW PROCEDURES United has improved its procedures to allow gate agents to move more quickly between gates. Frontier is unrolling a program that lets reservation employees field calls from home if they can't make it into call centers because of heavy snow.