When contemplating booking a flight out of the valley, the Roaring Fork-based commercial passenger is confronted with no less than five options for their departure point. While price and itinerary are important considerations, this guide will assist the traveler in assessing less-tangible factors in their decision.
Option One: Driving to Denver. Actually, never mind. For the local traveler, driving to Denver to catch a flight involves a tremendous amount of uncertainty and inconvenience — not only in parking, check-in lines, security, trains and people movers, but via the drive down. The drive down is a crap shoot. The powers that be in charge of I-70 have adopted a policy of imposing “safety closures” in adverse weather. What that means to the potential commuter is your travel time may be anywhere from three to 13 hours. Unless you plan on leaving for Denver a day early, I wouldn’t even bother trying.
The remaining options are regional airports. We love the small regional airports. They remind us of Highlands Ski Area, back when it had a free dirt parking lot. They remind us of Denver, when Denver was served by Stapleton.
When seasonal direct flights to other states are available, the small local airports are King. Take the direct flights if you can get them; if not, be prepared to hike the equivalent of 11 football fields across Denver International to catch your connection. The small airport flights are generally assigned gates at DIA located somewhere in Kansas. On one trip, we arrived late and I had 15 minutes to make my connection — from gate B95 to B11. I ran the entire length of the B terminal, OJ-style, and barely made it. There was a gentleman a couple decades older than me ahead doing the same thing, and, true to Aspen form, that old codger kicked my butt with a vicious sustained pace. In my defense, I was doing it in cowboy boots.
The Queen of the local airports is Aspen. However, some of the gleam may be coming off her crown. Aspen Sardy suffers from growing pains; at this moment, they are trying to figure out how to shove a 10-pound airport into a five-pound sack. The solution apparently involves a wider runway, less parking and likely the eventual annexation of the Buttermilk lot.
Aspen suffers from its own weather challenges. On a recent flight, my aircraft was subjected to, like, six de-icings before it was finally cleared to take off. That was not without entertainment value though, because the de-icing technician was perched in the open basket of a cherry-picker, squirting a firehouse while getting soaked with spray, protected only by a pair of ski goggles. Gotta love small-town life.
Back in the day, if an Aspen flight was cancelled for weather, one might jump in their vehicle and drive through the blizzard to Denver and still catch their connection. Alas, those days are over. I’m not a very fearful flyer, but a recent experience coming into Aspen left me clutching the airsick bag. The winds were awful, I lost count of the hard turns and altitude changes on approach and we passed so low over some mountain top that I was tempted to reach out and sign the summit register.
Another problem with the Aspen airport is it closes its airspace entirely every time some celebrity CEO, Russian mobster in witness protection or retired Cabinet official takes their Secret Service detail for a joyride.
One measure in which Aspen still dominates is service pets; on some flights, the service pets outnumber the passengers. And when the Aspen airport parking lot is full, authorities helpfully send out a text alert notifying travelers to this fact. What is not explained is what to do instead.
What to do instead is to try Eagle Vail. Vail is both what Aspen was once, and what Aspen wants to be in the future. Close-in parking, short lines, wide runways and room to grow.
Eagle Vail, too, is struggling with increasing popularity, but a planned expansion should even out the effects of their growing pains. The distance from Basalt to Eagle Vail airport, conveniently located just west of Eagle, is 53 miles away. For me, though, Vail seems to attract the comedy. On one flight, I arrived with plenty of time on a bluebird summer day. Oddly, there was heavy fog in Denver, and we had to wait for that to burn off, and then for the air-traffic backlog to work out. Fog in Denver — when the heck does that happen? As our plane finally taxied away from the terminal, we were treated to the spectacle of the airport firefighting crew participating in training exercises. What that entailed was extinguishing various fires set in locations across the tarmac, including a dumpster and a trash barrel. Oh, and also an empty aircraft fuselage. Nothing evokes the message of bon voyage quite like taxiing past an airplane engulfed in flames.
On another flight, we were about half full, and ready to push away from the gate, when some sort of commotion developed outside the aircraft. Eventually, the flight attendant asked the passengers seated in the front of the plane to walk to the rear and stand in the aisle. Apparently, the nose was compressed from the imbalanced weight of a partially filled flight, and the wheel chock could not be removed. The plan worked, and we were soon on our way. Eagle Vail is generally more weather-dependable than Aspen, except when it isn’t.
Also weather-dependable is Grand Junction. Formerly infamous mainly for its weekly Vegas junkets, Junction is making inroads into the regional air traffic market. The Grand Junction airport is 111 miles from Basalt. On my most recent flight from Junction, I arrived one hour early, parked within a stone’s throw of the gate and arrived at the ticket counter to find a line. A line composed of one person.
Flying from Junction can be quite educational. For example, one row mate demonstrated, several times, that Jack Daniels goes perfectly well with orange juice for breakfast. I also learned after a long period of staring at the back of a planeload of heads that neon hair highlights are not just a thing, they are a big thing. If you are familiar with the wicked spring winds that gather at the entrance to DeBeque Canyon though, you might want to think twice before booking out of Junction in April.
Finally, there’s Montrose. Montrose is known mainly for being Telluride’s pet non-mountain airport. Montrose is just 117 miles from Basalt; a quick jaunt up over McClure, but blink and you’ll miss it. Actually, it’s hard to miss, because it is marked by a jet fighter mounted up on a pole, like an entomologist’s bug stuck through with a pin, except more lethal. I suspect that the service animals on a Montrose flight would be border collie-heeler mixes, and would probably hog the armrest. But they might fetch you a Jack Daniels with orange juice.
Malcolm McMichael is a recovering accountant who got his start in the valley up on Missouri Heights, but eventually drifted downstream through El Jebel to Carbondale, where he lives with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. He's been around long enough to remember when there was more pasture than pavement on the valley floor.