Ski Industry Heaps More Boos on DIA

Colorado's tourism industry has joined the chorus of complaints about the record shutdown of Denver International Airport after a blizzard hit five days before Christmas.

"There is some frustration it took so long to resume service after the storm," said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, the central reservations service for the two resorts.

Although snowfall ended Thursday, the airport began only a limited number of flights on two of its six runways about noon Friday, stranding a peak of 4,700 travelers during the 45-hour closing. All six runways have been in use since Saturday.

In Summit County, large-scale shuffling of holiday bookings "has caused some challenges," said Constance Jones, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce.

"We know there were delays," she said. "There were people who were stranded here, but it was heartbreaking for those who couldn't get here."

Jay Ufer, president of Colorado Mountain Express, said he was more understanding than frustrated. But he said that the state's response to every major storm has to be evaluated to assure access to Colorado's signature winter playgrounds.

"We need to remain positive," Ufer said. "Colorado got marvelous marketing exposure for the long term, although the economic impact will be negative in the short term.

"Overall, DIA does the best they can," he said. "They are acutely aware of the economic impact on the entire state when they have to close the airport."

At Aspen, the first of about 20 daily flights from DIA did not arrive in the central Rockies resort until 10:56 p.m. Friday, nearly 11 hours after DIA reopened, Tomcich said.

"I believe if there had been a better plan in place to anticipate this event it could have been handled better," he said. "There's definitely room for improvement."

Airport officials, who have been reviewing their response to the storm since it barreled into eastern Colorado, have set a meeting Wednesday "to see what we did right and what we can improve on," DIA spokesman Steve Snyder said Monday.

Mayor John Hickenlooper say he plans major debriefings of DIA and Public Works officials today to explore ideas for how the city can better handle a blizzard like the one that crippled Denver and its airport over the holidays.

"If you can't learn from your immediate history, you're doomed to repeat it," Hickenlooper said. "And that, of course, is something we're absolutely not going to do."

Tomcich estimated that 95 percent of booked visitors kept their high-season reservations for Christmas weekend, although he has heard stories of people flying to Wichita, Kan.; Albuquerque; and Las Vegas then renting cars to drive in. About 3,000 Aspen-bound travelers were affected by DIA's shutdown, he said.

"It was unquestionably chaos, but some of our guests made heroic efforts to get here because they knew the snow would be so good," he said.

Ramifications of shutdown

Aviation consultant Mike Boyd, of Evergreen, said that the economic ramifications of the 45-hour shutdown may still be felt next year because "most of the people who come here to ski are people who have other options for their ski vacation."

"They may go to Salt Lake, Lake Tahoe or, if they have no class, they may go to Vermont," he said.

Besides economic ramifications, Boyd said, the closing may have political ramifications for Hickenlooper, who is up for re-election this spring.

"Hickenlooper may be a nice man, but he had an election disaster and now he has an airport operations disaster, both on his watch," the consultant said, referring to high-profile computer problems that plagued the November elections.

"You can't do something about the weather, but you can do something about failing to pick up the ball and run with it," Boyd said. "And DIA definitely let the ball drop this time."

But Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said he is not critical of the airport.

"When there's 12-foot drifts on Monument Hill, it's difficult to blame anybody for not being able to keep the runways open," Clark said. "It's unfortunate but it will pass."

Clark said his organization is working on the long-term expansion of the airport, including the building of a new terminal.

Back to normal

On Christmas Day, Frontier Airlines was "pretty much at some semblance of normalcy," said Joe Hodas, a spokesman for the Denver-based airline, the second-busiest carrier at DIA. "We're running on schedule. No real delays."

About 70,000 Frontier passengers were held up by the storm, but he said could not estimate how many canceled or postponed their trips or found other transportation.

In response to complaints from Frontier travelers angry over conflicting information from different Web sites, Hodas said they should check the airport Web site to be sure DIA is open and then rely on the airline Web site to see if their particular flight is operating.

"It all depends on what the issue is," he said.

A spokesman for United Airlines, the airport's dominant carrier, did not immediately respond to an interview request by the Rocky Mountain News.

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