Flying Into/Out Of ASE – Aspen, Colorado

The tiny Aspen airport is so convenient.  It was just over 8 miles from the Top of the Village condos in Snowmass where my group stayed on our recent trip.  It’s only 3.5 miles from downtown Aspen. So, so convenient.


Of course there’s a catch.

There are actually two catches: the airport’s location and the weather.  Naturally an airport needs flat land for runways.  The trick is that this plot of flat land is surrounded by mountains.  Not really in a canyon but enough that the weather needs to be reasonably clear (by pilot standards) to land.  That’s where the weather comes into play.  While we love snow on the mountains, the combination of low-lying clouds and the mountains make landing at ASE a delicate thing.

I was very fortunate that on the day I arrived the sun was out.  I flew in on United via Chicago and in the time leading up to my trip had been more concerned that the bad weather might cause issues in Chicago than in Aspen.  But it was clear at both airports and I had no issues.

My group flew in the next day via Denver.  While I arrived on January 1st, they were arriving on the 2nd and what a difference a day makes.  While I was on the slopes testing out my new ski boots, I noticed their plane was delayed for two hours.  I assumed that was due to the low clouds and/or snow that we had on the mountain.  I later learned they were told the delay was actually due to air traffic controllers holding off commercial traffic while all the private planes took off after the New Year’s holiday!  That was a new one to me.  The good news is that even though they were two hours late, my group arrived just fine.

Taking off a week later was another story.

United is the only airline that keeps a plane at the airport overnight.  And the flight path out of the airport is easier than the approach, since the planes merely need to get up quickly and over the weather and the mountains.  So even though it was snowing, their plane was able to take off reasonably close to on-time that morning.

I was returning on American via DFW and my flight was not scheduled to depart until 2:35 PM.  I rode to the airport with my group which meant I arrived before the American counter was even open.  That gave me time to ensure my bags were under weight as determined on their scales instead of just my hand scale.  I was glad I was allowed to check my bags as soon as the counter opened.  Fellow travelers had indicated that since my flight was more than four hours away American might not allow it.  That would have been a real pain as there are no restroom facilities in the check-in area and I’d have hated to just leave my two monster bags sitting there while I ran outside to the next building where baggage claim is.

Here’s the part I don’t fully understand: I know American charges $75 for a same-day standby ticket on the same routing or $200 to change the routing (prices are for non-elites).  What I don’t understand is why they don’t waive that when they can clearly see that weather is going to be an issue later in the day.

American’s first flight of the day is at 10:40 AM to Chicago, where I could have caught a flight back to Memphis.  But the agent couldn’t make the change without charging me a fee.  I knew that I could get a hotel room for less than $200 in Dallas or could use points in Aspen, so I wasn’t going to pay that.  There was an earlier flight to DFW but I believe it ended up oversold anyway so I just stayed on my flight.

As expected, the inbound flight couldn’t land on time.  The pilot had the foresight to go to Denver to refuel and he ended up taking the plane over to Grand Junction (an 11-minute flight away) to wait for the weather to clear.  In the end the flight landed in ASE over two hours late – but at least it arrived.  A Delta flight and one of United’s afternoon flights were cancelled.

Then the wait for my flight’s departure began.  The flight was scheduled to leave at 2:35 PM but we didn’t leave the gate until 5:53 PM and it took another 30 minutes for deicing and taxi, giving us a take-off time of 6:23 PM.  So I didn’t take off for nearly 11 hours after arriving at the airport.  Talk about a long day!

Fortunately the climb out was smooth and we had an uneventful trip to DFW.  But I just keep thinking about how AA could have handled this better.

The Vail/Eagle County Airport (EGE) is about 1.5 hours from Aspen/Snowmass.  While ASE can only accommodate regional jets, EGE can handle the bigger planes, like 757s, and is not surrounded so closely by mountains.  I once had a travel agent tell me he’d never fly groups into/out of Aspen, only EGE, and now I understand why.  Yes, the shuttle between Aspen/Snowmass and EGE is more expensive (if you have several people, balance that against the cost of a rental car) but flights are a lot more reliable out of Eagle.

If I’m ever tempted to fly into/out of Aspen again, I think I will be sure I’m arriving and departing as early as possible during the day – and I may just fly into EGE anyway.

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