Aspen lands American Eagle
July 27, 2011
ASPEN – As it stands now, Aspen will have service from three airlines beginning this winter, with Tuesday’s announcement that AmericanAirlines will begin flying between the resort and both Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles, starting in December.
A gathering of local resort and government officials, representatives of the local lodging industry and AmericanAirlines executives gathered Tuesday in the arrivals area of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport to applaud the news. The hoopla featured music from a brass quartet, cakes decorated with the AA logo, pastries, a drawing for two airline tickets and plenty of backslapping for a collaboration that finally cemented the carrier’s entry into the local market.
American Eagle Airlines, the regional affiliate of AmericanAirlines, will serve Aspen in winter and summer, joining Frontier and United, which both serve the resort year-round. Seats will be available for sale starting Monday for service that begins Dec. 15, according to Gary Foss, vice president of planning and marketing for AmericanAirlines. This winter’s service – one flight daily between Aspen and both Dallas and L.A. – will run through April 2, 2012. Summer service is scheduled June 15 through Aug. 20, 2012.
“Effective in December, you’re going to see traffic increase dramatically,” Foss told the crowd.
Attracting American has long been on the resort’s radar, but it was the lengthening of the local airport runway by 1,000 feet – a project that is now under way and is to be finished in the fall – that makes service by the airline possible, Foss said.
Without that extra length, the weight of the fuel needed to make the nonstop flights to Dallas and Los Angeles meant leaving seats empty in order to take off in Aspen. The profitability of the service didn’t pencil out, Foss said.
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“We couldn’t make the numbers work prior to that 1,000 feet,” he said.
American will fly the CRJ-700 into Aspen – the same jet that SkyWest flies into the resort for United Express. Negotiations with the American pilots’ union, to set aside a cadre of pilots who will be trained to fly in and out of the local airport, was among the complexities of arranging the launch of service, according to Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.
The worldwide connections American offers will be a huge boon for Aspen, Foss and Tomcich predicted. That’s not to mention the easing of travel for the many Texans who visit Aspen-Snowmass.
Over the course of a year, 64 people per day fly between Aspen and Dallas/Fort Worth, a major hub for American, Foss said.
“I could hardly go to a cocktail party in Dallas for the last 10 years without somebody asking me why we don’t serve Aspen,” he said.
The last time Aspen/Snowmass had a direct connection to Dallas/Fort Worth, in 1997-98, was a record season for skier visits, Tomcich noted. “We’ve been attempting to work with American Airlines ever since,” he said.
Not coincidentally, there were five airlines serving the resort that winter and it was a big snow season.
American’s partnership with Qantas, which connects to L.A. from four locations in Australia, will also benefit Aspen, Tomcich said. Those L.A. connections are timed perfectly for travelers heading from Down Under to Aspen, traveling through Los Angeles, he said.
“Australia is by far our No. 1 foreign market and our fastest growing market,” Tomcich said.
United also offers a connection between L.A. and Aspen, with three daily flights during the winter, but doesn’t have the partnership with Qantas.
Chicago, also an AmericanAirlines hub, was analyzed extensively, according to Tomcich, but United serves that market with four flights daily during the winter and American doesn’t serve many markets through Chicago that aren’t already served by United, he said.
It’s the Dallas connection and international markets that make landing American Eagle a home run for Aspen, according to Mike Boyd of the Evergreen-based Boyd Group International, an aviation planning and consulting firm.
Two out of three people on a plane out of Dallas will likely be from somewhere else around the country and beyond, Boyd said.
In addition, American “owns South America – they go everywhere,” he said. “You can’t find a downside to this one.”
In Colorado, American also serves Denver, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Montrose, Steamboat Springs, Gunnison, Vail (Eagle) and Durango.
Unlike some resort destinations, though, Aspen-Snowmass is not providing revenue guarantees to entice American, according to Tomcich.
“American is coming in here at their own risk,” he said.
The resort did provide an incentive package to the airline that was comparable to what was offered to United and Frontier when they entered the Aspen market, according to Tomcich. He declined to reveal the value of the package, but said it was a collaboration between Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, along with the Aspen Skiing Co., Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Snowmass Tourism.
“No airline would ever launch service into a community without some sort of package of support,” Tomcich said.
United has long been the dominant carrier into Aspen, mostly through connections with its Denver hub. Frontier began service to Aspen in April 2008, ending what had become a United monopoly on local air service. The competition brought down fares noticeably and it’s a situation resort officials would like to see continue.
“It’s long been a priority of the Board of County Commissioners to have strong, healthy, competitive airline service,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards at Tuesday’s gathering. “American Airlines is going to add considerably to that goal.”
Meanwhile, Frontier’s future is uncertain. The airline was taken over by Republic Airways in 2009, but Republic announced earlier this summer that it plans to shrink its ownership of money-losing Frontier to a minority stake by the end of 2014. Frontier service to Aspen depends on Republic’s continued ownership of a handful of Q400 turboprops that it uses to fly into the resort.