Colorado Airports: Storms leave airports snowbound

 - January 24, 2007, 10:08 AM

With three major storms in three weeks (and winter far from over), the Denver area has not only had its share of snow this season but seems also to be hogging all the snow that many other areas of the U.S. expect. Ski slopes in parts of the Northeast U.S. have no snow base to speak of and have rarely reached temperatures low enough to make snow. In the Denver area, snow is piling up more quickly than it melts, and skiers are clogging the slopes and airports.

There has been no shortage of stories about people camping in Denver International Airport’s terminals, but what about the general aviation airports? How did they fare during the back-to-back storms?

At Aspen-Pitkin County Airport/Sardy Field in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, nature spared FBO Atlantic Aviation from excess snowfall and reserved the bulk of the heavy weather for airports farther east. At Pueblo, Colo., only three to four inches fell during the big second storm, according to Roger Boswell, general manager of Flower Aviation, and at press time the snow hadn’t been bad enough to slow Flower’s famous 10-minute turnarounds.

Hunkering Down for the Long Haul
Hardest hit, according to FBOs we spoke with, was Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (formerly Jefferson County Airport) in Broomfield, Colo. In a press release issued after the first big storm, the airport claimed that it was the last to close (at 3 p.m. December 20) and first to open (at noon December 21). The airport was buried under 26 inches of snow, but high winds blew the white stuff into eight-foot-high drifts.

“We had problems with employees not being able to make it to work,” said Les Wenger, general manager of Rocky Mountain-based Denver Air Center. “We did get hit really hard a couple of weeks in a row.”

Wenger moved to the Denver area from Scottsdale, Ariz., and this winter was his first significantly snowy season. “Last winter was fairly mild,” he said, “and this is all kind of new to me.” To make sure employees stayed safe and weren’t driving in hazardous conditions, Wenger stocked the FBO with inflatable mattresses, cots, sleeping bags and plenty of food so they could stay overnight if necessary. “I’d rather have them be here and comfortable,” he said. This also helped ensure that a fresh crew was available to handle the morning traffic.

During the first storm, three employees were stuck at the FBO–two line service techs and one customer service rep. Another employee was able to arrive the next morning in a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive vehicle. “They muscled up,” Wenger said proudly, “and handled it real well.”

Denver Air Center did run low on fuel briefly the day after the first big storm hit because for three hours fuel tankers couldn’t get to the airport. “It wasn’t to the point that aircraft couldn’t go because of lack of fuel,” Wenger said.

He added that the FBO is still dealing with the aftermath of the storm. “We’ve still got piles of snow in the parking lot. We couldn’t find a snow-removal service, and it took five days to get [the parking lot] cleaned out. It was just a real crazy week.”
Wenger said he was ready for the next storm, having hired a new parking-lot plow company and stocked the FBO with more food and sleeping supplies. “If we get stranded here, we’re taken care of,” he said. “My big issue is safety. I’d rather pay them to stay overnight and be safe.”

At Cutter Aviation in Colorado Springs, the wind also blew snow into deep drifts. “We ended up with eight- or nine-foot drifts we’re still digging out of,” said Jessica Scudder, general manager. Normally open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Cutter had to close for half a day during the first big storm then at 6 p.m. when the second storm hit, she said. “We stayed open as long as we could.”

For Cutter Colorado Springs employees, work meant a lot of snow shoveling. The airport keeps runways and taxiways clear, but FBOs are responsible for their own ramps. And Cutter’s deal with its 58 hangar tenants includes keeping access to the hangars free of snow and ice. “My employees are wonderful hard workers,” Scudder said. “They’ve done really well. We were one of the cleanest [areas] as far as being able to get in and out. The sun’s out today, and we have high hopes that the piles here are going to melt a bit.”

Further eastward, the municipal airport at La Junta, Colo., had to close for a day during the first storm then for two days during the second storm. “We’re still in the process of digging out,” said Edward Jaure, airport supervisor for the city-run airport. “Old-timers said the last time they saw a storm like this was 1947.”

La Junta is a popular cross-country fuel stop, Jaure said, especially with its low self-serve (both avgas and jet-A) fuel prices and 6,848-foot main runway. Fuel was never a problem during the storms as the path to the fuel pumps was one of the first areas cleared. “We’re trying to get rid of as much snow as possible now,” he said.
“Hopefully we don’t get hit hard again, because if we get another foot or two of snow, we will really be in trouble.”