Whenthe skies aren't so friendly

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In a summer of airline headaches, perhaps nobody in Steamboat Springs has had a bigger migraine than Verne Lundquist.

Lundquist is a CBS television sportscaster, and when he travels it's imperative that he be on time for the broadcast no excuses. He hasn't missed a telecast he has all kinds of contingency plans but it hasn't been so easy this summer.

"It's been an abusive summer," Lundquist said. "It really has."

Lundquist was scheduled to fly United Airlines to Chicago Tuesday afternoon, then catch a connecting flight to Louisville, Ky., where he'll take part in the network's coverage of the PGA golf championship. But United has canceled so many flights this summer, Lundquist couldn't risk missing his date with Tiger Woods. So, at the last minute he re-booked on American Airlines and will fly through Dallas to get to Louisville.

"I'm not taking a chance," Lundquist said.

United Airlines has conferred special status on Lundquist because he has averaged more than 100,000 miles a year with the air carrier, but it hasn't done him any good.

"I'm called a premiere executive 1k, but I feel as abused as anybody," Lundquist said. "I can tell you horror stories about this summer."

Lundquist may be among Steamboat's most famous frequent fliers, but he's not alone.

Shirlee Finney of Great Escape Travel in Steamboat said she has clients who are going to the lengths of booking a commuter flight out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport on United Express, then disregarding the cost savings offered by a connecting flight on United and booking another airline out of Denver International Airport to reach their final destination.

Frontier, Delta, American, Northwest, Continental and U.S. Air all have a much smaller presence in Denver than does United, Finney said, but they are viable alternatives and it is not a struggle to book flights with them.

"Frontier is picking up a lot of flights and that's good," Finney said. "We need the competition in Denver."

Finney said she recently returned from a trip to Florida on an airline other than United and both flights were full and overbooked. But she still finds it is not a struggle to book clients on alternative carriers.

"There are enough flights out of DIA and there are enough carriers," Finney said.

Lianne Pyle at Carlson Wagonlit Travel said her clients' aversion to United is getting extreme. Some have transferred their accumulated frequent flyer points to other airlines. Delta airlines has been savvy enough to say it will accept accrued frequent flier miles point for point from United without penalty.

"I have some high-level frequent fliers who have made some very bold statements about, they will not fly United," Pyle said. "you realize what a big commitment that is when you understand that means they probably will not fly nonstop to their destination. That's a huge adjustment to their schedules."

The advent of cellular phones on commercial airliners has brought a new dimension to the role of travel agents this summer, Pyle said. She had a client who travels heavily on business call her from an airplane this week to remind her she is absolutely not to book his September travel schedule on United. He wasn't the first to call from an airplane to seek solace.

"Our clients are calling us from airplanes and asking us if what the airline is telling them is true," Pyle said. "There's usually nothing we can do. But they're so frustrated, they just have to talk."

Jim Parker, manager of Yampa Valley Regional Airport said he doesn't believe United Airline's problems this summer have had a severe impact on the eight roundtrips a day that United Express flies out of DIA into the airport east of Hayden. However, he said mechanical and weather problems have led to some flight delays and cancellations.

Two commuter airlines Air Wisconsin and Great Lakes Aviation operate as United Express into YVRA. Air Wisconsin flies Dornier turboprops three times a day and Great Lakes flies the smaller Beech 1900 five times a day.

Parker said the biggest impact of the big airline's problems at YVRA has involved the last Air Wisconsin flight of the day, which is scheduled to arrive at 8:30 p.m. The aircraft remains in Hayden overnight, then is scheduled to depart at 7:30 a.m. the next morning. That schedule allows business travelers to connect with a key bank of flights headed out of DIA to major cities in the east.

There are times, Parker said, when the Air Wisconsin flight remains on the ground at DIA waiting for passengers on connecting flights. If it waits too long, and arrives in Hayden too late, the next morning's flight can be delayed until the flight crew has had the mandated rest period, Parker said.

Pyle said the feedback she gets from clients is that United Express out of Hayden is unreliable. However, she said she has found Air Wisconsin to be reliable.

Parker said it's his impression that the number of local people flying United Express out of Hayden this summer would be higher if the fares were more reasonable. It's difficult to says exactly how much consumers are paying for the Hayden extension to roundtrip flights out of DIA because they are lumped together as connecting flights.

Parker said he thinks price sensitivity changes when the differential between flying out of Hayden and driving to DIA to catch a flight exceeds the range of $100 to $150.

Finney agreed. She said there have been times this summer when the differential has been as much as $250.

Business travelers are less sensitive to the price of airline tickets than are leisure travelers, Finney said, but both groups ask for quotes on both options.

Lundquist, for one, avoids flying out of Hayden when he can. But he has an option most of us can't consider he's invested in half ownership of a Cessna Turbo 310 twin-engine private aircraft.

His partner, Dr. Larry Bookman flies Lundquist to Denver whenever the weather allows and his schedule allows. That means Lundquist spends more time watching the Weather Channel than he does watching sports on television. But he says it's worth it.

"There's nothing quite like that drive to Hayden with that knot in your stomach, going 40 minutes the opposite direction from DIA and not knowing until you arrive if the plane is going to take off."

Lundquist's biggest complaint this summer stems from the times he and network colleagues have been deliberately misled by airline agents. CBS associates of Lundquist were convening for a track meet in Portland, Ore., earlier this summer and one of the party asked for information about a connecting flight. He was told by a gate agent that the aircraft was airborne en route. As it turned out, the flight was canceled and never took off.

Pyle predicted it could take United Airlines years to recover from the ill will that has resulted form this summer's flight cancellations.

Pyle's advice to her clients and the flying public is simple: Be prepared for the worst, and when it happens, you'll be in a better state of mind.

To reach Tom Ross send e-mail to : tomross@amigo.net or call 871-4210.

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