Aircraft operations continuing to drop at Aspen airport | AspenTimes.com

Aircraft operations continuing to drop at Aspen airport

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Aircraft operations at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are down 2.8 percent so far this year, a decline that is in keeping with an ongoing drop in the number of airplanes that come and go locally.

Total aircraft operations through July (the latest numbers available) stood at 22,477. The sum includes all operations, including commercial, private, charter and military aircraft. Operations through the first seven months of 2010 totaled 23,129.

Aircraft operations for all of last year totaled 37,603 – down 5.5 percent from 2009.

The decline in the number of “itinerant” operations – ones that don’t begin and end at the local airport – is even more pronounced. Those operations are down 3.7 percent through July, compared to the same period last year. And, total itinerant operations in 2010 were down about 12 percent from 2009.

While the recent economic downturn has had an impact, aircraft operations have actually been dropping for at least a decade, according to David Ulane, assistant aviation director. A decline in general aviation – the operation of private aircraft – is primarily responsible, he said.

A decade ago, in 2001, operations at the local airport totaled 46,047 takeoffs and landings. That number included fewer commercial flights than the airport saw last year – 6,988 in 2001 versus 9,698 last year. But general aviation totaled 27,978 operations in 2001, versus 16,005 operations last year, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration.

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The trend isn’t unique to Aspen, according to Ulane.

“Almost every single airport that I’m aware of has seen a downturn in general aviation,” he said.

Although the number of private planes flying in and out of Aspen has dropped, the size of those types of aircraft is increasing, and they are capable of carrying more people.

The smaller, Learjet-size corporate aircraft has given way to the larger Gulfstream jets and the Bombardier Global Express, Ulane said. The latter, a long-range private jet, is actually the largest aircraft that flies in and out of Aspen at present. It’s slightly bigger than the CRJ-700 commercial jet that United Express uses for commercial service, according to Ulane.

“It doesn’t carry as many people, but it has a heavier takeoff weight and greater wingspan,” he said.

No data is kept on the number of passengers private aircraft carry, but the larger private jets and the growing use of “fractional” aircraft – planes sold in shares to multiple owners – could mean that as many or more people are flying in on private planes even though the general aviation numbers are dropping.

Commercial passenger traffic, however, has been holding its own. In fact, last year was the busiest in a dozen years at the Aspen airport in terms of commercial enplanements – the number of people who boarded a commercial flight here.

Enplanements in 2010 totaled 227,784, up 3.7 percent over 2009. In 1998, the airport recorded 248,510 enplanements.

This year through August, enplanements totaled 165,966 – down 1.89 percent from the same period last year. March was the busiest month so far in terms of commercial passenger traffic (it was the busiest month in 2010, as well).

This year, enplanements showed their biggest gain so far in July – up 5.5 percent over the same month a year ago. They were also up in February and August, but down in January, March, April, May and June.

janet@aspentimes.com