Denver airport authorities and airline officials will gather Wednesday to review whether they could have done anything differently last week, when a blizzard shut down the nation's fifth-busiest airport for 45 hours at the peak of the holiday travel period.
Denver International Airport shut down at 2:45 p.m. MST Wednesday, Dec. 20, and reopened around noon Friday, three days before Christmas. As many as half a million passengers had been expected to use the airport during the three-day period when the airport was shuttered.
canceled about 2,000 flights, while
canceled about 650. Both have Denver hubs, United with about 800 daily departures (including 440 mainline departures) and Frontier with about 300 daily departures. In total, about 3,000 flights were canceled by all carriers at Denver during those three days.
Frontier estimated that its cancellations kept 70,000 passengers from making planned Christmas trips. The Denver-based carrier said it undoubtedly lost more than the $5 million in losses it sustained when a March 2003 blizzard closed the airport for a day. United did not provide financial estimates.
Some passengers and others, including aviation consultant Mike Boyd of nearby Evergreen, Colo., have criticized the airport for the length of the closure. "This is a black eye for the airport, and now people will say, 'Don't connect through Denver because it can't handle snow,'" Boyd says.
"They couldn't get the airport open until 24 hours after the storm stopped," he adds. "I understand the challenges, but this is the nation's fifth-largest airport, and you should have the equipment to get it up and running a lot faster than that."
Responded airport spokesman Chuck Cannon: "People who say that don't know much about airport operations." The snow began around 6 a.m. Wednesday and ended at 2 p.m. Thursday. Snowfall totaled about 21 inches, with drifts as high as 12 feet.
Cannon said Wednesday's planned meeting is a "brainstorming session," intended "not to point fingers, but to say, 'Could you have done better?'" He said airport crews removed about 4.4 million cubic yards of snow, enough to fill a one-lane highway from Denver to San Francisco to a depth of 8 inches. Runways, taxiways, ramp areas, gate areas and crew parking lots all had to be cleared before the facility could function. "It's a complex system," Cannon says. "Getting one part open doesn't mean you can operate."
The airport had a snow emergency meeting on Dec. 19, the day before the storm, Cannon says. Airport officials made sure there was sufficient food at the airport, and Cannon asked whether airlines were canceling flights in anticipation of the storm. "They said, 'No, our planes are too full,'" he recalls.
Boyd said the airlines handled the situation properly, referring to them as "victims." On Dec. 20, United canceled all of its Denver flights as of 8:30 a.m., several hours before the airport closed. "We canceled our schedule in and out of Denver to minimize the impact on customers and our employees and to reduce the number of aircraft stuck
there," said spokeswoman Jean Medina. Frontier waited a few hours longer.
Frontier got 46 flights out that day before the airport shut down, helping passengers who boarded but hindering those who arrived in Denver only to get stuck because they missed connections, said spokesman Joe Hodas. Nobody could have anticipated that the airport would close for two days, he says.
"As an airline, safety is the top priority, and beyond that you weight
whether it is ... better to try to get people where they're going or to cancel ahead of time," Hodas says. "It's a chess game. You try to get all the pieces in place at the right time, to have planes at the right stations and to match them up with crews."
At the peak, Cannon said, as many as 100 planes were parked on the ground while as many as 4,700 people were stranded in the airport. It was unclear how many arrived by land and how many were stranded because connecting flights failed to depart. Much of the time, it was possible to drive in Denver, but the nearest interstate highway was closed.
Once the airport reopened Friday, most planes were full, delaying the time it took for stranded passengers to find seats. Some passengers could not get out until Christmas Day.
Hodas, who spent time helping passengers at the airport, encountered various difficult situations, including "divorced parents trying to get children to the other parents for the holiday." He said 100 Frontier employees volunteered to work on their days off to help out, but many could only field questions because every available counter position was already staffed.