ASPEN - The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is as busy as it gets these days, with outbound flights packed with departing holiday travelers plus the usual exodus of private jets, but overall commercial traffic at the airport dipped in 2012.
With last year's loss of one airline serving the local airport year-round, commercial enplanements (people getting on a flight) totaled 220,376 in 2012, down 1.2 percent from 2011's total of 223,078. Enplanements in 2010 totaled 227,784, according to data compiled by the airport.
December enplanements showed the biggest drop, at 25.5 percent, while February saw the largest gain at 16.6 percent.
The December drop reflects reduced service and fewer travelers early in the month, but the decrease for the year comes with the loss of service between Aspen and Denver by Frontier Airlines. It pulled out of the market in mid-April, leaving United Express as the sole year-round carrier serving the Aspen airport. American serves the resort in the summer and winter seasons; it began operations for the winter on Dec. 13, offering single daily connections to both Los Angeles and Dallas.
During 3 1/2 months of operation in early 2012, Frontier logged 19,363 enplanements, and the three airlines operating simultaneously gave Aspen travelers a heady dose of available commercial seats.
"Last winter was absolutely the most capacity we've had in the past decade," said Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort's liaison to the airline industry.
United clearly captured some of Frontier's former market share; its enplanements for the year were up from 174,954 in 2011 to 183,785 in 2012.
American's December numbers rose from 1,181 enplanements in 2011, when it debuted its Aspen service during the later half of the month, to 1,270 for the last half of the month in 2012.
The overall 1.2 percent decline in enplanements for 2012 "is not bad," considering Frontier's departure, Tomcich said.
Aircraft operations, including commercial, charter, private planes and other aircraft, totaled 33,693 through the end of November. December numbers are not yet available. Total operations in 2011 hit 37,605.
The holidays are a busy period for general aviation, and parked private jets often pack the ramp during the period between Christmas and New Year's. Last winter, Jan. 2 was the second-busiest day in the airport's history, with 341 flights coming and going, but airport officials did not expect to approach a record this holiday season. Wednesday's unofficial operations count was 315, said assistant aviation director Brian Grefe.
Commercial flights through early next week are booked to capacity, according to Tomcich. He issued a notice Wednesday urging travelers who have bags to check to show up at least two hours before their departure. Wait times of more than 30 minutes at both the ticket counter and to get through airport security are not unusual, and United Express will not delay flights for late-arriving passengers, he cautioned.
Weather-related travel headaches, however, were minimal during the holidays thanks to well-spaced snowstorms that did not hinder flights on peak travel days for the most part. The snow generally fell when fewer flights were scheduled to arrive and depart.
"We had perfect timing for the snow," Tomcich said, complimenting SkyWest (which operates United Express) on its completion rate.
Christmas Eve snow did result in bus rides from Denver for some travelers, Tomcich said.