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...


"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."

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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:

At DIA:

* 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.

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