ASPEN - The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport isn't as busy as it used to be, though travelers passing through its facilities at crunch time might not notice.
Overall aircraft operations at the airport slipped in 2012, reflecting a slight dip in commercial traffic and an ongoing trend toward fewer, but bigger, private planes flying into and out of Aspen.
The resort airport remains, however, the third-busiest airport in Colorado, based on commercial passenger traffic. It follows behind two Front Range airports that are in a league of their own - Denver International followed by Colorado Springs Airport.
Holding the third spot in the state, based on commercial passenger counts, has been alternately held by Aspen-Pitkin County, the Eagle County Regional Airport and the Grand Junction Regional Airport in recent years, according to Jim Elwood, aviation director at the Aspen airport.
"We've flip-flopped in and out of that position over the last 10 years," Elwood said.
The local airport logged 220,376 commercial enplanements (people getting on a flight) in 2012. The 1.2 percent drop from 2011's 223,078 enplanements was the result, in part, of Frontier Airlines' departure from the market in mid-April. Frontier was responsible for 19,363 enplanements during its 31⁄2 months of operation last year.
Enplanements in 2012 also were down from the projected 229,984 enplanements that were forecast for last year as part of the planning for future facilities at the Aspen airport, including a new commercial terminal. Those projections call for 250,452 enplanements by 2017 and 295,542 by 2027.
The forecasts were done a few years ago and are based on several factors, though the impact of weather can't be predicted, Elwood said. The projections are one consideration in the discussion about future changes at the airport, he added.
Overall aircraft operations, including commercial airlines, charters, and private and military aircraft, were down 1.9 percent in 2012 at the local airport. In all, the Aspen airport saw 36,900 takeoffs and landings last year, compared with 37,605 in 2011.
General aviation operations by private aircraft that aren't based locally numbered 14,985 last year - down 4.4 percent from 2011. The airport logged 18,282 commercial takeoffs and landings in 2012, down from 18,336 in 2011.
Operations by locally based private planes were up 1 percent last year.
General aviation operations haven't outnumbered commercial operations since 2009, according to Brian Grefe, assistant aviation director at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
The busiest month of 2012 for private planes was June, when general aviation operations were up 9.4 percent. In July, those operations were down 10.7 percent, and in September, they dropped 26.7 percent. General aviation operations were down 5.7 percent in December.
There is no tracking of the number of people who fly into and out of the resort on private aircraft, Grefe said.
"The phenomenon we're seeing here in Aspen is, yes, there are fewer operations, but the smaller planes are being replaced by larger planes that can carry more people," he said.
At the Eagle County Regional Airport, airport operations totaled 36,401 last year, up 8.7 percent. Almost all of the increase was the result of general aviation activities, including an active flight school, according to Greg Phillips, aviation director there.
Enplanements at Eagle County, however, were down about 13 percent last year compared with 2011, and the Durango airport surpassed Eagle County in enplanements. Phillips attributed the drop at Eagle to reduced capacity by carrier United Airlines and the lackluster winter snow, which was experienced statewide. The airport serves the Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts in Eagle County.
A good snow year can spell a pickup in travel to ski resorts but also negatively impact both overall operations and enplanements, Aspen's Elwood pointed out. Travelers may seek ground transportation to another airport in the event of weather-related flight cancellations in Aspen, sending those enplanements elsewhere, he said.