Are larger jets coming to Aspen?
Special to The Aspen Times
In an environment of fewer airlines and available airplane seats, Aspen is “holding its own” among destination ski resorts, airline experts told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday.
But an industrywide move toward larger regional jets also deserves a closer look, commissioners decided.
In a report to the Board of County Commissioners, Airport Director Jim Elwood described an airline industry in great flux. There are now five major airlines — American, Delta, United, US Airways and Southwest — but an American-US Airways merger soon will reduce that number to four. And overall numbers of airline seats are shrinking, both nationwide and in Colorado.
Amid all this activity, Aspen actually is performing well. Between 2007 and 2012 Aspen has increased the number of passengers served from its county-owned airport, according to Elwood, while the numbers from airports serving Vail, Gunnison, Steamboat Springs and Sun Valley, Idaho, have dropped.
Between the year-round United Airlines flights and seasonal service from American Airlines, said consultant Joseph Pickering, of Mead & Hunt, “you have a decent level of service today.”
Planes generally were fuller during the 2012-13 ski season and fares were higher. Elwood said he thinks American Airlines had a successful winter in Aspen.
Elwood and Pickering told the commissioners that they continue to work with airlines in an effort to bring more flights to the market. It’s unlikely that United, which Pickering called “a great airline for Aspen,” will add new flights in the coming year. The same goes for American Airlines, which is unlikely to consider new service till the merger with US Airways is complete. Pickering said Delta, which once served the Aspen market and has hubs in Atlanta and Minneapolis, actually might offer the best opportunity for an expansion in the number of airline seats.
The issue that most concerned the commissioners, however, was the industry’s ongoing turn to larger regional jets. The CRJ-700 and the Q-400 are the only commonly used commercial aircraft now certified for use at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. But the industry is moving to larger jets such as the MRJ-90, as evidenced by Skywest Airlines’ recent $4.2 billion purchase of 100 of the new jets from Mitsubishi Aircraft. Those jets can carry as many as 92 passengers versus the 66 to 78 who can fit on a CRJ-700, but with wingspans of more than 95 feet, they exceed Aspen’s wingspan limitations.
“It seems like the challenge is for us to determine where we’re going to go in the future,” Commissioner George Newman said.
Allowing larger aircraft to land in Aspen is tricky both from engineering and political standpoints. Aspen’s elevation and weather demand certain performance specifications from airplanes, and the population is notoriously sensitive about the crowds and noise impacts that larger jets could bring.
Accordingly, the commissioners asked for more information on the feasibility of the new jets flying into Aspen and how they might be affected by various regulations. With all the trends at work in the airline industry, Elwood said, it’s hard for Aspen to know exactly what to do next to enhance airline service.
“What I understood (from the commissioners) was they want to make sure they understand the issues that might be coming at us,” Elwood said. “It’s about being more proactive to understand the changing landscape.”
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