As an area snowstorm battered La Plata County, 138 passengers on two outbound United Airlines flights at the Durango-La Plata County Airport faced delays that lasted for hours.
At least one additional flight on Friday experienced a significant delay, although details from the airport weren’t available on Saturday.
Passengers on the flights and their family members said airline crews told them there was a shortage of de-icing fluid needed to ensure aircraft can safely depart, which contributed to the delays.
Hesperus resident Brian Nasky said his daughter, whom he declined to identify, was stuck on United Airlines Flight 5400 on the tarmac at DRO for at least five hours, which caused her to miss a connecting flight from Denver International Airport to Austin, Texas.
According to a Flight 5400 status report on United Airlines’ website, the flight was scheduled to depart at 6:05 p.m. The status report says the plane departed 18 minutes late at 6:23 p.m., but also shows a delay of four hours and eight minutes and an 11:36 p.m. arrival time at DIA.
Nasky said his daughter and 67 other passengers boarded the flight around 5:45 p.m., but the flight didn’t leave until 10:45 p.m. or later, and passengers were never allowed to exit the aircraft while it idled.
His daughter was provided water, but not food, and by the time the aircraft started moving, passengers were fed up and considered the ordeal to be a joke, he said.
SkyWest Airlines, which managed the two delayed United Airlines flights on Friday, said in a written statement to The Durango Herald that passengers on both flights were given opportunities to deplane during the delay.
DRO Aviation Director Tony Vicari said on Saturday the airport is responsible for snow removal on the tarmac, and airport staff worked overnight to bring and keep the tarmac up to standards. But airlines are solely responsible for de-icing their aircraft and managing the deplaning process when passengers face unreasonably long wait times.
Airlines are typically required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to deplane once a delay reaches three hours in length for domestic flights.
SkyWest confirmed to the Herald delays in getting de-icing fluid delayed departure times.
Lou Arguello, who was also flying from Durango to Denver to catch a connecting flight home, said in an email to the Herald that he and his wife were passengers on United Airlines’ Flight 5952, and they were delayed for over seven hours on Friday. In their case, all 70 passengers were twice given the opportunity to deplane at a gate after the three- and six-hour marks had passed.
Arguello declined to say where his final destination was.
United Airlines’ listed status for Flight 5952 says the flight was scheduled to depart at 3:25 p.m. Friday from DRO to DIA and was delayed by seven hours and two minutes.
It reached Denver at 12:18 a.m. Saturday, seven hours and 32 minutes later than scheduled.
Arguello said he and his wife finally arrived home Saturday afternoon after missing connecting flights in Denver. Other passengers on the flight were trying to make connecting arrangements with United Airlines, “but it was impossible to talk to a live agent.”
Many passengers’ cellphones were close to dying and power outlets were unavailable on the plane, he said.
The flight was scheduled to depart at 3:23 p.m. but was delayed by the weather. The flight crew went ahead with boarding passengers onto the plane, but the storm outside worsened.
Pilots checked the condition of the plane’s wings, then returned to the gate to refuel. After three hours passed, passengers were allowed to deplane. Arguello and his wife opted to stay on board, he said.
They were told the flight would depart in 25 minutes after the plane was de-iced again. Two hours later, the crew reported it was struggling to combat the elements outside and was out of de-icing fluid.
The snow was coming down even harder by then, and there wasn’t another United Airlines crew available to help, Arguello said. He and his wife again decided to stay on board because the pilot was optimistic about reaching Denver that night.
The plane was eventually de-iced and cleared for takeoff. The flight arrived at DIA after midnight. Arguello said he and his wife met customer service agents, who helped them make connections.
United Airlines offered to pay for hotels for both Nasky’s daughter and the Arguellos.
Arguello said the airline also offered him and his wife food vouchers.
But Nasky said a hotel was the only compensation his daughter was offered.
A spokesperson for SkyWest did not respond to the Herald’s questions about compensation to passengers.
“We felt real bad for the flight attendants (because) they received a lot of grief from passengers who had a lot of questions. The constant delays and apologies frustrated all of us. It was a painful event for both passengers and crew,” Arguello said.
Vicari said the airport has received a number of emails from upset passengers expressing their frustration with the delays. But some passengers might misunderstand who is responsible for what.
Nasky said he sent several “nasty” emails to the La Plata County manager.
Nasky had a career planning and designing airports for over 30 years, and he said it’s “inexcusable” DRO was unprepared with enough de-icing fluid to weather a storm during a peak holiday travel period.
“They know how many flights are (processed) every day. They know what the weather is in advance. It's inexcusable for the operations of the airport to not be prepared for that,” he said.
In a follow-up interview, Vicari again said airlines are wholly responsible for maintaining their de-icing supplies and performing the de-icing procedure for their aircrafts.
“Aircraft de-icing itself is something that the airlines manage from front to back, including the procurement of the ice fluid maintenance and utilization of their equipment, and then the staffing thereof to apply those chemicals,” he said. “That's not something that the airport itself has any role in. We don't staff it, oversee it, manage it in any kind of way.”
He said he has doubts United Airlines actually ran out of de-icing fluid, but he can’t speak to their operations. Airlines order, offload and stock large quantities of glycol, the chemical used to de-ice aircraft.
“What I suspect is that the amount that's loaded on the truck itself was probably what ran out,” he said. “I don't know that for sure. But there's a finite supply that they can load on a truck; it's a mix of glycol and water.”
Vicari said he is aware three flights were extensively delayed Friday evening due to the intense snowfall. But he is uncertain whether passengers were kept on board any flights through the full extent of their delays, or if passengers were allowed to deboard at gates between initial boarding and eventual departures.
He was not at the airport on Friday, but he said he is following up with airport staff and United Airlines to determine what happened.
“It obviously affects passengers in our airport,” Vicari said. “So it’s something we like to be aware of and understand the details of so we can work with our airline partners to mitigate that if it ever does occur.”
Airport and airline staff battled intense, rapid snowfall for most of Friday. Airlines struggled to de-ice their aircraft as snow continued to pummel the airport.
“Safety is the No. 1 rule for us,” he said. “We always, as well as the airlines, always (make sure) the runway (is) clear and safe or the proper de-icing chemical is applied, in the case of the airlines.”
The snowstorm and resulting delays occurred during DRO’s single busiest weekend of the year.
Vicari said he doesn’t have full data yet, but based on the surge in airport parking, he expects DRO had record-breaking traffic for Thanksgiving travels.
The airport absolutely had record-breaking parking usage, he said. One hundred percent of spaces were taken, including 70 additional overflow spaces created this year.
“We’ve never seen anything to this level. So it was very busy this Thanksgiving weekend,” he said.