Aspen’s winter-season commercial air service was marked by higher fares, fewer available seats, greater reliability and fuller planes.
As a whole, the factors may bode well as the resort seeks a third carrier to serve the market along with year-round mainstay United Express and American Airlines, which offers winter and summer connections to Dallas and Los Angeles.
Frontier pulled out of the local market a year ago, at the close of the 2011-12 ski season, and the number of airline seats coming into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport dropped precipitously as a result. This winter, between Dec. 1 and April 30, airline seats leaving Aspen totaled 163,128 — down 25 percent from the same period in 2011-12, according to numbers compiled by Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry. The figures are based on numbers the airlines reported to the airport.
Passenger enplanements this winter, however, were down only about 10 percent, totaling 119,952. Enplanements refer to the number of people boarding the planes.
The “load factor,” or percentage of filled seats on winter-season flights, was about 73 percent, an increase of about 19 percent over the winter of 2011-12, when Frontier was still in the picture.
Both United and American saw enplanement increases this winter. American’s load factor was close to 76 percent, and United was not far behind, around 73 percent.
“That makes this market even more attractive to other airlines,” Tomcich said.
For passengers, the drop in available seats combined with high demand spelled higher fares, though data to compare the average airfare during the first quarter of this year to the first quarter of last year were not yet available.
Travelers may be paying more to fly, but they’ve seen increased reliability in air travel in and out of Aspen. Completion rates by United and American hovered around 95 percent for the winter. A snowy April brought the lowest completion rates, with American dipping to about 89 percent for the final weeks of the ski season.
“Reliability for the past two winters in a row, it’s never been better,” Tomcich said.
He attributed the improvement in part to greater patience by the airlines in waiting for the weather to clear rather than simply canceling flights.
Tomcich is part of a group of government, tourism and business officials seeking a third carrier to serve the Aspen market. Finding another commercial carrier is “a higher priority than it’s ever been,” he told members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association board of directors on Tuesday.
Another carrier logically would result in reduced load factors for each individual airline, and the increased competition could bring down fares — both considerations for a carrier considering entering the market — but Tomcich said he believes there is yet a right balance of service for the local market.
Despite fewer available airline seats this winter, overall lodging occupancy and skier visits are expected to be flat or up slightly, which means some visitors found other ways to reach Aspen and Snowmass, he said.
“There is an optimum mix. I don’t think anybody would argue we’re below — maybe well below — our optimum mix,” he said.