ASPEN - Less than a month after Frontier Airlines announced it would pull out of the Aspen market this fall, the airline said Tuesday it will maintain its Denver-Aspen connection throughout the coming fall and winter.
On the same day, United Airlines announced plans to bump up its service to Aspen this winter with additional connections to Chicago and San Francisco.
Rather than cease service to the resort, effective Oct. 1, Frontier will continue to fly into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport with one flight daily from Oct. 1 through Nov. 17, and bump up to two flights daily from Nov. 18 to Dec. 15. For the ski season, Dec. 16 though April 2011, Frontier will fly four connections daily between Aspen and Denver - the same level of service it offered last winter, according to Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort's liaison to the airline industry.
Rumors of Frontier's change in plans were circulating throughout the community Monday, after the airline's local employees were told they will have jobs through the winter.
"What precipitated this most unusual about-face was a bizarre combination of circumstances from which our community clearly stands to benefit this winter," Tomcich wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday.
Republic Airways, which owns Frontier, had announced plans to phase out the fleet of Bombardier Q400s that Frontier's Lynx Aviation subsidiary flies into regional markets, including Aspen. However, a lease arrangement for some of the Q400s apparently fell through, making three of the planes available to serve Aspen, as well as Colorado Springs and Durango.
Lynx's operating certificate for the Q400s is being transferred to Republic; the planes will operate as Frontier flights through the coming winter.
Though four flights daily are planned starting in mid-December, the airline may reduce that number to three flights per day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Tomcich said.
Last month, it appeared Aspen would be a one-airline resort this winter. Frontier announced that Sept. 30 would be its final day of service between Aspen and Denver, and Delta said it would not return to the Aspen market this winter.
Delta, which offered one connection daily to both Salt Lake City and Atlanta last winter, remains out of the picture for the coming ski season, but Frontier officials said they had hoped to come up with an alternative that would allow the airline's Aspen service to continue. The route was profitable for the airline during the wintertime, Frontier spokesperson Lindsey Purves said last month.
With the scheduled phasing out of the Q400s, Republic/Frontier was unable to come up with another aircraft that could work at Aspen's airport. The unexpected availability of some of the turboprops means Frontier can continue to fly to the resort, though the commitment is only through the coming winter, Tomcich stressed.
The planned lengthening of the local airport runway, however, could open other options for continued Frontier service in the future, he said. The estimated $17.5 million runway project has received Pitkin County's approval, but awaits federal funding. The 1,000-foot extension could occur next year if the money is allocated; federal dollars are expected to pay 95 percent of the cost.
The continued head-to-head competition on the Denver-Aspen route will likely benefit travelers. Airfares dropped noticeably when Frontier entered the Aspen market in 2008.
United will continue to be the dominant carrier serving the Aspen market. The airline announced Tuesday it will add a fourth daily nonstop flight from Chicago and a second nonstop connection from San Francisco this winter. United is also scheduled to operate three daily nonstops from Los Angeles and 12 daily trips between Aspen and Denver, for a total of 21 daily connections to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, starting Dec. 16.
The two added flights alone offset the number of seats lost with Delta's departure from the local market, Tomcich said.
All United Express connections to Aspen this winter will be operated by SkyWest Airlines using the CRJ-700 regional jet.