More than 500 passengers affected
Five flights into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport were canceled due to airport closures at the peak of the holiday season this year—the night arrival couldn’t land on Christmas Eve, flights from Dallas, Houston and Denver couldn’t land on December 26 and a December 27 flight canceled due to an early morning closure. The closures left travelers scrambling to get here, lodging establishments wondering what happened, and the airport frustrated by miscommunication from the airlines to the public.
Airport manager John DeVore explained that the airport was required to close because of a policy it set under a mandate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) three years ago. When braking action—how well the brakes work on the runway—is measured at or below a certain number, the airport must close.
“Up until three years ago, when we did braking action—which is a friction test to see how well brakes work on the runway—all we would do is post what the numbers were, and the pilot would make the decision to come in or not, based on their experience and their confidence in the aircraft,” DeVore said.
Under the old policy, when braking action fell below 20 and into the teens, pilots could opt to use reverse thrusters instead of brakes and still land safely. But the FAA grew leery of planes running off the end of the runway and required airports to set a policy. According to DeVore, the airport’s certified inspector wanted Gunnison-Crested Butte to set its minimum braking action at 24 or 25. The airport opted for 21.
“Our argument was that we’ve never experienced an aircraft going off the runway, and if it’s 20 or 21 the pilots will still come in. They’re not concerned about that. [The inspector] wanted 24 or 25 because he was trying to err on the side of minimizing all risk,” DeVore explained.
Had the airport set the regulation at 24 or 25, DeVore believes the airport would have to close more often. As it is, airport closures affect about 3 percent of winter flights, and a variety of factors, many of which are determined by airlines, can close the airport or cancel flights. Braking action, mechanical issues on planes, no crew to fly a plane and low visibility can all lead to canceled flights.
On Christmas Eve and December 26, however, the culprit was braking action. On Christmas Eve, the airport closed around 7:15 p.m. because the braking action fell below 21, canceling the night flight. Flights arrived as planned on Christmas Day, and on December 26 the morning flight also took off on time.
At about 10:30 a.m., however, DeVore says that braking action fell below 21 and they were forced to close the airport. Crews got the braking action back up again around 4:30 p.m. and then it fell below 21 before the night arrival could land. The Denver, Houston, and Dallas flights were canceled on December 26. Only the Houston flight was rescheduled for December 27 after it diverted to Denver. Another flight canceled on December 27 when airline dispatch saw that Gunnison was closed in the morning, and canceled the flight even though DeVores says the airport was open in time for it to have landed.
DeVore was disappointed that airlines told passengers that airport crews were to blame.
“American and Dallas passengers called me to find out if the airport crew doesn’t come to work until 8 or 9 in the morning or if we have antiquated snow removal equipment,” DeVore said.
In reality, he said, on snow days crews come to the airport at 3 or 4 a.m., and work anywhere from 12 to 16 hours to keep the runways open. And whereas the county can use materials like mag chloride to keep roads clear, runway practices are carefully regulated. Steel blades are prohibited because they can catch the grooves on the runway and tear up the asphalt, and using a plow with a broom can polish the runway to a glaze.
In order to use a de-icer, the airport and the county would have to go through what DeVore calls a lengthy review process to get a permit. “It’s never been an issue before, but if the board [of County Commissioners] wants to get into prevention, then we have to go through the complete permitting process for whatever de-icing solution we choose to use, which would include modifications to the storm water discharge plan and the purchasing of the equipment.”
Devore said that the airport has only seen extended closure due to braking action four times in the airport’s history. On December 26, DeVore did something he normally tries not to do. He opted to plow the runway with a loader that has a 6,000-pound steel plow. “It worked. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work long enough,” DeVore said.
The impact of the canceled flights reverberated throughout the valley. According to Crested Butte Mountain Resort public relations and communications director Erica Reiter, 412 guests had their flight schedule interrupted on December 26. On December 27, 144 guests had their incoming flight from Houston canceled.
Most everyone was able to reschedule and make it to the resort eventually, but shorter visits mean less revenue for the resort and the valley during a time when resort-based businesses see an average of 10 percent of their annual revenues.
The resort hasn’t seen data yet, but according to Reiter the resort wouldn’t be surprised if the valley lost more than a million dollars due to displaced guests.
“That’s tragic during the holiday season when we’re trying to maximize all the revenue we can. And it’s not just us—it’s every entity in the valley,” Reiter said.
“Our sales team does as much as they can to extend those visits by a day but people are set on going home when they’re going home,” she continued. “It’s for sure lost revenue when that happens, and then there’s the lost tax revenue.”
Wanda Berth of Crested Butte Lodging and Property Management said that 15 to 20 of her company’s reservations were affected, but guests got creative in getting to Crested Butte. Some rented cars, and others hired shuttles.
“Nobody was completely denied their vacation,” she said.
Unfortunately, that didn’t hold true for Black Tie Ski Rentals. According to owner Roman Kolodziej, one customer reported having her Denver to Gunnison flight canceled while she was in the air to Denver. She opted to return home instead of waiting for another flight. Kolodziej did not provide the number of reservations affected but emphasized that shortened vacations have a big impact on businesses like his.
“Every single person we were supposed to deliver to that day didn’t ski the next day,” he said. He also found himself giving out refunds. “If people are asking for refunds for that day we honor those refunds, because more than anything else it gives Crested Butte another black eye. It reinforces the thought that Crested Butte is difficult to get to and it’s expensive. We had some pretty pissed people and had more than one person say [they weren’t] going to come back to Crested Butte in the winter again.”
Those are the comments that make local retailers and lodging establishments worry, and Reiter says CBMR is concerned about guest perception as well as the impact on revenue guarantees to the airlines.
Overall, it’s created a level of angst about cancelations that DeVore hasn’t seen before. He suspects it’s related to the timing of the closure and current economic conditions, but hopes the public won’t take their frustration out on his airport crews.
“All of us who worked at the airport who were on shift during this time were not able to spend much time with their families for Christmas,” he said.
As for frustrations that the airport didn’t communicate well with the public, DeVore said that in light of how many factors can affect flights, some time would have to be put into to figuring what and how to communicate. “In terms of the airport having a protocol to notify, we’d have to find out what people want to know,” DeVore said.