Airfares climb for Aspen travelers |

Airfares climb for Aspen travelers

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” The latest round of turmoil in the airline industry is driving Aspen’s airfares higher and could reduce the amount of service, according to a local tourism official.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass, said he is waiting for the fallout from United Airlines’ announcement Wednesday that it will cut jobs and the frequency of flights in many markets. If United cuts the level of service to its hub at Denver International Airport, that could mean less demand for its service from Denver to Aspen.

“The feed into Denver is the key,” said Tomcich, the local business community’s liaison to the airlines.

United dominates the Denver and Aspen markets. So far, it hasn’t altered its Aspen schedule for this summer or next winter from the prior seasons. Tomcich said next ski season’s schedule still features three daily nonstop flights between Aspen and Chicago, two nonstops to Los Angeles, and 13 daily flights between Aspen and Denver.

“I haven’t seen any impacts as of yet,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see some modest cuts.”

Higher fuel costs for United have been passed on to Aspen passengers. The lowest published fare for a mid-week, round-trip flight from Chicago in mid-January was $1,005. The fare from Los Angeles was $619.

Tomcich didn’t have historic fares but said: “I can tell you they weren’t that high.”

Vacation travelers to places like Aspen already are guaranteed having to pay an excess baggage fee. United and Frontier both charge $50 round-trip for a second checked bag. Higher fuel costs will drive Aspen airfares up beyond the baggage fee.

“People are going to have to spend a lot more for their vacation,” Tomcich said.

USA Today’s lead business story Wednesday detailed how several smaller air carriers likely will fold this year while the larger airlines will drastically reduce service. Airlines cannot survive by offering the same level of service they did at the prices they did because of oil soaring to $130 per barrel.

Drastic cuts are anticipated in the fall, according to USA Today. Service to many small cities and towns will be eliminated and service to vacation hotspots such as Las Vegas and Florida will also be hard hit. The competition has been so fierce in leisure travel that fares were low, but as costs soar, the cheap fares disappear.

Tomcich said he isn’t concerned about Aspen’s service disappearing. Unlike many vacation markets, service to Aspen is profitable, he said.

One measure of profitability used by the airline industry is average fare per mile. USA Today said it is only 11 cents at Orlando. It hovers at 10 cents at times for the Las Vegas service.

Tomcich said his research indicates the average fare per mile is 22 cents for Aspen service.

Another advantage for Aspen is there is a greater demand for airline service than many larger cities because of Aspen’s tourism economy.

Air carriers offered 178,196 seats in and out of Aspen between December and April last winter. That was up 11.4 percent from the winter before and the most seats “in a few years,” Tomcich said.

If United reduces its seats into Aspen next winter, the loss could be offset by Frontier Airlines’ entry into the market. Frontier’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Lynx Aviation, started serving Aspen in April with five flights daily. The schedule was quietly pared back to four flights daily in June.

No statistics were available Wednesday on Lynx’s performance in May, its first full month in Aspen. The new Aspen service met Frontier’s expectations, said airline spokeswoman Lindsey Purves. She said the reduction to four flights daily from Denver was a normal adjustment that airlines must make in a new market.

“Dropping to four flights a day helps us keep fuller flights, so the route stays profitable for the airline,” Purves said. “Our flight schedules are constantly under review and can change if the need in a certain market changes.”

Frontier has faced drastic changes since it committed to Aspen in April. The airline filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy that month to try to shore up its financial position. Fuel costs have continued to soar, forcing all airlines to examine their service routes.

Purves said the Aspen service makes more sense then ever. Lynx is using its Q400 turboprop aircraft, which is 30 percent more fuel efficient than a regional jet of the same size.

“These shorter-haul flights not only make sense because of the aircraft’s fuel efficiency, but they also help drive additional traffic through our Denver hub,” Purves said.

Other airlines are dropping vacation destination routes because the ticket prices they can charge don’t cover the high cost of operating “larger, fuel-guzzling aircraft,” Purves said. “In our case, the fuel costs per seat are much less because the Q400 is so fuel efficient, so these travel destination routes can actually be profitable for our airline without us having to hike up the airfare.”