ASPEN - With Frontier Airlines out of Aspen's air-service picture, the overall number of airline seats coming into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport this winter will be down 20 percent. That said, there is room to move as many passengers in and out of the resort as there was last season.
At times of peak demand, however, there will be fewer overall seats available to the traveler.
Last winter, 60 percent of the overall seats offered by three carriers were filled, according to Bill Tomcich, president of the reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort's liaison to the airline industry. Aspen can match last winter's enplanements - the number of people who boarded a commercial aircraft - even with this season's fewer seats.
"We can absolutely drive the same number of enplanements in Aspen with just a 75 percent load factor," he told the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors in October.
"In years past, we've run load factors as high as 79 percent in Aspen," he said last week.
With United and American offering service to Aspen this winter, but with the loss of low-cost competitor Frontier, Tomcich is predicting both higher fares and higher "load factors," a reference to the number of seats that are filled.
The Aspen market, he added, is not alone in seeing a reduction in airline capacity and, quite simply, airlines, given the number of mergers that have occurred in recent years within the industry.
The Eagle County Regional Airport, which serves Vail, has seen the number of commercial carriers flying in drop from five to three as a result of mergers, Tomcich noted.
Aspen lost service by Frontier in the wake of its merger with Midwest Express after the two carriers were acquired by Republic Airlines. Frontier's ultimate departure was no surprise.
"We were ripe for a correction in terms of airline capacity," Tomcich told the ACRA board.
In Aspen, travelers may notice the United Express jets have a new look. The tails of the aircraft are being repainted with the Continental Airlines globe, reflecting the merger of Continental and United.
United will continue to provide the bulk of local air service with up to 23 flights per day, Tomcich said, including eight to 11 connections with Denver, plus connections with Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its service ramps up Dec. 19.
American will resume service for the winter on Dec. 13, with single daily connections to both Dallas and Los Angeles on American Eagle.
While Aspen has lost seats, the resort's total airline capacity is down only 11 percent from its five-year average, according to Tomcich. He says "only" because that decrease is less than what other resorts have experienced.
"Our seat loss compared to other regional mountain resorts...there's nobody who has less than an 11 percent decline in the five-year average," he told the ACRA board.
Tomcich said he will soon issue his annual breakdown of daily flights and total seat capacity into Aspen for the winter season, but told the ACRA directors: "It paints a decent picture as opposed to a bleak picture."
Aspen, incidentally, continues to enjoy airline service without offering revenue guarantees - a practice other resort markets, including Vail and Steamboat Springs, employ to attract commercial service. In essence, the resorts come up with the funds to guarantee an airline a certain level of revenue.
Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman recently noted the Montrose Regional Airport had attracted service by low-cost carrier Allegiant Air, asking local airport aviation director Jim Elwood if the airline had been approached about service to Aspen.
Allegiant doesn't use aircraft that can fly in and out of Aspen, Elwood explained, and the carrier was attracted to Montrose with revenue guarantees - a deal that involved both the Telluride Tourism Board and Crested Butte Mountain Resort, the Denver Post reported recently.
With service from just two carriers - United and American - this winter, Tomcich said the two airlines may realize profits that bode well for the resort's future. Higher fares and load factors could translate into revenues that entice the carriers into expanding their service the following winter. In addition, a lucrative market stands a better chance of attracting another airline, he said.